In the Name...
I've always enjoyed the New Yorker cartoon which portrays the traditional manger scene bathed in light from the star, surrounded by shepherds, angels with trumpets, wise men with gifts, and has the caption, "No Joseph. I said a stable neighbourhood!"
Well the angels have sung, the shepherds have gone back to their fields, and we have celebrated Christmas both here and in countless other churches around the world. We gathered before the Manger, heard the story of the Birth, and sang the familiar carols, many of which referred to a certain hamlet in a far-off land. Indeed, this year, as every year, pilgrims of all nations made their way to this little town to feel that much closer to where it all began. Has it ever struck you, then, as curious that throughout his life and, especially indeed, as he gasped his last on the Cross, that Jesus was known as being "of Nazareth" and not "of Bethlehem."
We live in a highly mobile society. We come, we go. A job transfer can uproot lifelong residents. Grown children move away and older parents often follow. The concept of the "hometown" is something of which we can easily lose sight. Fifty-nine years ago, I was born in Philadelphia, PA, but, since then, I've lived in 17 different cities in 10 states and 2 countries. Where on earth am I from? Good question. But, for most people in most of history this has not been a question or an issue. A person's birthplace is an important way of identifying who they are. I once worked for an old Greek gentleman and whenever he met a fellow Greek he always asked, "What is your village?", because, for him, where a person traced their family roots was a statement about the kind of person they were.
So what kind of statement does the last line in this morning's Gospel make about Jesus? "He shall be called a Nazarene."
Well, for one thing, it speaks rejection. Remember, the Christmas story does not end with the angelic chorus. It does not even end with the visit of the Wise Men. The story goes on. Herod hears of the Birth and orders the massacre of the children. The Holy Family flees the country and only returns, years later, in conditions of secrecy. The point is that you and I and the whole world know that Christ was born in Bethlehem, but he couldn't tell a soul. The massacre of the children was no secret. Simple math could expose him.
Imagine the subterfuge his parents and relatives had to employ. In an age where everybody was identified by their home town, Simon of Cyrene, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary of Magdala - Jesus, the Son of God, had to live and die under an alias. Not only did he have to be born in a stable, he couldn't even claim it.
What a way to live. But, then, how else could he live? The Christmas Gospel contained these ominous words, "He was in the world and the world was made by him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own, and his own received him not". And one of the most beautiful arias in Handel's "Messiah" is based upon the not so beautiful words, "He was despis-ed and rejected of men." And so he was.
From the moment of his birth to the day of his death and still today. To the secular world, Christmas has ended for the year. Already, the front yard manger scenes are coming down and the table-top ones are being carefully packed away with the lights, the garland and the other ornaments for another year. And, so too, for so many families, are any thoughts about Christ. This, too, is a form of rejection. Not by violent persecution, but, by the subtle closing of the minds and hearts to the words of the grown-up Jesus.
You see, the silent sleeping baby has a universal appeal, but, the grown man who speaks appeals to the universe. He is the Word made flesh and he speaks words. Words of self-denial to a world which encourages excess. Words of ultimate accountability to a world which denies individual responsibility. Words which are as unpopular today as they were two thousand years ago.
These words grate on the ears of many, but, these words will not be put away in a cardboard box any more than their author could be put away in a stone tomb.
The fate of those who hear and choose to repeat these words, however, will be the same. Rejection. As sure and certain as that which forced the Son of God to disguise such a basic fact of human life as a birthplace.
Someone recently noted that if you were at a Christmas party and remarked that you had known a notorious criminal, or even a terrorist, you'd quickly attract a crowd of interested people asking questions. But, if you remarked that you really believe what the Christmas carols say about Jesus, you'd find yourself just as quickly standing alone.
After the Wise Men found the Christ child the angel told them to go home by another way. We too must travel a different road. We cannot return to our homes unchanged and claim we have celebrated Christmas. We celebrate Christmas today, tomorrow, next week, next month, every time we repeat the words, when we live the words, of the Word made flesh. He was in the world. The world knew him not. So much for the world. How well do we know him?
He was born in Bethlehem, he was called a Nazarene, but, we know from where he really comes. So. Are we going to tell?
In the Name...