Sunday, November 14, 2010

Christmas again, for the First Time (Brian E. Konkol)

One of the many blessings of living in a foreign land is the opportunity to encounter new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and ideas. Without question, over the past years I have been incredibly fortunate in this regard. An additional blessing – one that is too often overlooked, includes the various occasions when previously held notions are challenged and forced to be reconsidered. In other words, as a result of being accompanied by local South African hosts and an experience of life through “globally formed” and “globally informed” lenses, there are countless occasions when I am moved to perceive our world through diverse perspectives. The upcoming Season of Advent and reflections surrounding Christmas provide such an example.

In a few weeks, various Christians from around the world will begin the liturgical season of Advent, which serves as a time of spiritual preparation and expectation for the birth of Jesus to be celebrated in late December. While I suppose most people of faith (including myself!) are not fully informed on the exact historical details and precise theological insights surrounding the New Testament Christmas narrative, one can argue that most have a general understanding of Joseph, Mary, and of course, the Christ child named Jesus. With each passing year, Christian families in all corners of the globe gather to hear the account of Jesus’ birth, and as a result, we collectively rejoice in the awesome realities and implications of a loving and gracious God who entered the world to accompany humankind through all circumstances.

As I was raised in a Christian family, and now serve as an ordained pastor, I have heard and shared the Christmas narrative on a number of occasions. As a result, some have asked how I continue to find the story worthwhile, or shall we say, “appealing” or “exciting”. While I have indeed reflected upon the account of Jesus’ birth many times, I can admit that it never gets “old” or “boring”, for while the words on the New Testament pages seem to stay the same, each year brings new insights and ideas as the “living Word” of God enters into my heart and mind. For example, during the past year I heard a wonderfully fresh and challenging interpretation of the Christmas narrative offered by one of South Africa’s most renowned theologians, the late Steve de Gruchy. Specifically, in regards to the Magi and their visit with Jesus in Matthew 2: 1-12, de Gruchy offered a striking proposal surrounding Christmas and its relationship to cooperative efforts between those in the so-called global North and South. He wrote:

One of the ways of reading [Matthew 2:1-12] is to see how the Magi, from the powerful East symbolize in today’s world people from the North who posses wealth and wisdom, and who seek to contribute to those who are poorer than themselves.

Herod represents the local elites that so often control the political economy of the South. And the holy family symbolizes the millions of vulnerable people who live in poverty throughout the globe, mostly in the South, but also in the North.

In the story, the powerful Magi first make contact with those whom they have an affinity, namely a representative of the political and economic elite, Herod. This elite has no interest in the vulnerable poor in their own country, and seeks to use those from the North to serve its own ends.

However, the story turns on the fact that the Scriptures point the Magi to Bethlehem, where they learn that the one whom they must respect in God’s scheme of things is not to be found in a palace, but in a humble abode. Their journey, guided by the worlds of the prophet and God’s star lead them to meet the poor of the South in Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

As one can imagine, I never encountered such an interpretation of the Christmas narrative until serving alongside the people of South Africa. Specifically, I am greatly indebted to Steve de Gruchy, who died tragically this past year, for his particular insights and ability to challenge traditional assumptions has influenced many and continues to spark countless streams of global progress. When I hear of such ideas (not only surrounding Christmas, but a wide variety of topics) from de Gruchy and other South Africans, I find myself perceiving faith and our globalized world in a new way, learning not to take commonly held beliefs and notions for granted, and as a result, allowing God to work through such cross-cultural experiences in order to transform perspectives and behaviors for the benefit of reconciliation and transformation in our global community. And so, with the above being said, while I suppose there is always a part of me that thinks I “know” the narrative of Jesus’ birth, with each passing year I realize how much I do not understand, for I hear and learn something fresh, and a result, I am challenged and inspired in new and exciting ways.

A key insight into the Christmas narrative, as Steve de Gruchy highlighted, is the radical reality that God is revealed to humankind not through massive power and privilege of the dominating elite, but through the vulnerability of poverty and marginalization. The main characters of the Christmas plot are not the wealthy and prosperous bling-bling high-rollers, but rather, the downtrodden and vulnerable poor who stand as deliberate reminders of how God stands in solidarity with those who are too often forgotten and oppressed. If Mary and Joseph had been people of wealth and privilege, I am sure there would have been more than enough “room at the inn”, yet God shows an alternative to the common hierarchies of status in our world, and such pushed-aside people like Joseph and Mary who are forced to dwell in the midst of animal filth are given highest priority as the bearers of Christ. Without question, such realities highlighted in the Christmas narrative stand in bold contrast to historical and current trends in history, politics, and international development.

As Steve de Gruchy would later note, the Christmas narrative requires us to reflect upon our place in an ever-changing and increasingly-connected globalized world. Specifically, for people of faith whom seek to participate within God’s global mission of reconciliation, transformation, and empowerment, the account of Jesus’ birth requires those from the northern hemisphere to reconsider their global relationships and how beliefs and daily actions have a massive impact upon communities thousands of miles away. As de Gruchy stated:

Somehow, in their journey to the South, [the Magi] were touched by God’s presence in the Word, became suspicious of the agenda of the local elite, and found joy in forging a relationship with the poor. They bow before the manger, and offer their gifts, symbolizing the self-emptying of power and the willingness to have their agenda shaped by the concerns of the South.

These gifts are offered, moreover, not to bride officials, create dependency or leverage influence, but simply as a sign of homage and respect.

In light of such reflections surrounding the Christmas narrative, the Magi in Mark 2: 1-12 point us toward new concepts of global relations for the 21st century. As de Gruchy states, we are pressed into companionships that affirm “the vocation of the poor”, and recognizes people in the southern hemisphere as subjects of history and not merely the objects of northern hemisphere actions. In other words, rather than people from the North setting the agenda for the South, through a mission methodology of accompaniment we learn to allow the poor and marginalized members of our global village to set their own priorities, and as companions in faith we walk alongside one another faithfully, and by God’s grace, seek fruitful cooperation to the best of our collective abilities.

With all the above thoughts in mind, instead of assuming we have heard all there is to know about Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the common cast of Christmas characters, my hope is that we not only utilize the narrative in order to reconsider global mission, but also, learn to hear the account through alternative “lenses”, or as if we are experiencing it for the first time. While the words on the page may appear the same each year, the Word from God received through them grows and transforms alongside us through each occurrence, and as a result we are given an incredible opportunity to receive the comforts and challenges of a “God with us” who continues to do amazing deeds to us, through us, and in spite of us. And so, the Christmas narrative is not merely an old story that is re-told each year, but it is a living account of God’s presence in the world, and how Jesus continues to turn the world upside-down and inside-out thousands of years after his birth. As a result, during this upcoming season of Advent and expectation surrounding the birth of Jesus, as we all take our places within this unfolding Christmas narrative, I pray that our gracious God who comes down to us through the baby born in a manger continues to comfort, challenge, and change us, and as a result, we humbly and boldly respond to God’s walking alongside us by accompanying others, both locally and globally, with dignity and respect for all.