Tonight I had a moving experience, but not in the way I thought it would be.
My family went to the Living Nativity put on by Discovery Baptist Church in Gig Harbor, Washington. I expected a relatively trite or cheesy live performance of the tenderest parts of the Christmas story. What I got was a historically honest depiction of a few of the characteristics of first-century Israel: Roman centurions, tax collectors, merchants vying for our denarii, and a corrupt king Herod cooperating with his Roman occupiers to retain his make-believe power.
One actor in particular caught my attention as he stood in a merchant’s booth with his sheep. He wore no guise, nor appeared to “act the part.” Instead, he spoke plainly and wondered if perhaps the news from the shepherds meant that there was hope that God had not abandoned his people.
His authenticity, coupled with the meticulously designed, multi-sensory experience (rabbis handing out messianic prophecies written in Hebrew and English, Jews dragged away by centurions for not paying their taxes, and the whole marketplace filled with the aroma of Frankincense), led to a fresh experience of the perceived hopelessness into which Jesus was born. Believe in his Christ-ship or not, here was a child born of two Galilean nobody’s at a time when their people had no choice but to obey their Roman masters…or feel the sword. Here was a child who in all likelihood may not have been born had his earthly father chosen to accuse his mother of adultery. Here was a child who barely escaped being murdered by his own king. Here was a child who, by the most incalculably improbable odds, somehow gave hope to a dozen guys, a few hundred followers, and eventually to billions of people across the globe. Again: believe in him or not, taken in its historical context the significance of the birth of Jesus is enough to boggle the mind.
It made me think of 2015. Today. And how after two-thousand and fifteen (give or take a few hundred) recitations of this story it can become as trite as overplayed Christmas music, or worn out like great-grandma’s placemats. But it need not be so. What has changed, after all, between Jesus’ time and our own? Electricity? Democracy? But what of the human heart has changed? Aren’t we still gripped by the fear that someone will come and take our freedom? Someone who is more willing to shed blood and less willing to take prisoners? Aren’t we still vying for people’s business, trying to make ends meet, and wondering what tomorrow holds Aren’t we still wondering whether or not we’re good enough for this life, let alone for an eternal one?
I’m afraid combustion engines and cell phones have done very little to solve our actual problems, which are still the culprits behind persistent human hopelessness. And I’m afraid I remain unconvinced that reason alone can do the job, either. The Enlightenment was a revolutionary time, but reason alone has done as little as anything else to make lasting change in the human heart. So the question I’m asking myself this holiday season is: What will give us lasting Hope? I admire the original tellers of the Christmas story for having the courage to hold fast to an outrageous story — yes, it would have been outrageous even then — that is either true cause for hope, or the most evil practical joke of all time. I have spoken with people and read books which argue for the latter option but fail to provide ample motive for such a lie. So again…I wonder…
I want to close with lyrics from a song by Bob Dylan called “Ring Them Bells.” Like most Bob Dylan songs, I’m not sure I know what it means. But I know how it makes me feel (and I imagine that’s really what Bob wants.) It makes me feel hopeful.
“Ring Them Bells”
Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world is on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride
Ring them bells Saint Peter where the four winds blow
Ring them bells with an iron hand
So the people will know
Oh it’s rush hour now
On the wheel and the plow
And the sun is going down upon the sacred cow
Ring them bells Sweet Martha for the poor man’s son
Ring them bells so the world will know that God is one
Oh the shepherd is asleep
Where the willows weep
And the mountains are filled with lost sheep
Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left
Ring them bells for the chosen few
Who will judge the many when the game is through
Ring them bells for the time that flies
For the child that cries
When innocence dies
Ring them bells for Saint Catherine from the top of the room
Ring them bells from the fortress for the lilies that bloom
Oh the lines are long and the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.
(Lyrics from Google Play)
Charlie’s Chaplain Mike