It’s actually Isaiah who supplies the details about kings and camels. In the late first century, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew looks back to Isaiah, who writes about the light rising in and over the darkness, who talks about kings coming to little Israel to worship Israel’s God, and a multitude of camels, bearing precious frankincense and gold. Surely now is a time of darkness, Matthew says, with the Temple and Jerusalem destroyed, Jews dispersed throughout the ancient world, and in the midst of a string of would-be messiahs and Kings of the Jews, there was One–one who we thought had died like the rest of them at the hand of Rome, and yet He is still with us, with Matthew’s community, with followers of all varieties and stations in life. What did we miss about that life? What might it have been like? What was God trying to tell us? So the writer of Matthew wondered as he took pen in hand.
Matthew is probably the most Jewish of the Gospel writers, but he chooses to craft his story of the birth of Jesus around the visit of non-Jews, from a far-country, who found in signs in the heavens that a great ruler had been born, and who came to worship him. This One who had come into their midst and who was still them, who had been thoroughly Jewish, this One was not just for Jews. Matthew’s own community was evidence of that. There were other communities of his followers around the ancient world made up entirely of non-Jews, so it must have intended from the beginning. What do our scriptures say? Matthew wondered.
The writer of the gospel of John, writing even later than Matthew, maybe even at the beginning of the 2nd century, goes all the way back, back to The Beginning, and can only imagine it in song and poetry. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John doesn’t even try to recreate the details of Jesus’ birth, as though the details of a baby born into a peasant family in an obscure village would have been important to anyone. John sees a much more important Birth. Through this One, who was born and lived and died like the rest of us, through this One a whole new life came into being, the light of all people. And to those who were somehow able to see and experience this new life, this life shot through with the radiance of God, “he gave power [John writes] to become children of God, …born of God.”
What’s important here is actually our birth, our birth as children of God. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” That had been God’s intention–God’s Word, God’s Wisdom– from the very beginning.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” “A week past the solstice, [a man writes in his diary] and the light of day is already three minutes longer than the night. Small, minuscule, to be sure, but significant in its forthright intent. The cosmos itself was once infinitesimally small before it exploded with light into countless, colorful clusters.” (An Almanac for the Soul, Marv and Nancy Hiles, p. 258) Any moment, maybe this moment, we are being born anew, born again, born of God, as children of God.
So each moment, we must do our best to be present, to open our hearts to the new birth God intends for us…which doesn’t mean it won’t be hard or painful or troubling, which it no doubt will. Do you know any births that aren’t? But it also will be life-giving, with the possibility of joy, of connection, of love.
My friend Maria Sirois wrote in her book about her work with gravely ill and dying children,
There are moments in life when the forces that be hit us over the head and say, “Here. Now. Pay attention. This is important.” Infants arrive, towers fall, homes burn, lost ones return, illness erupts, children die—such moments carry with them a potency and a possibility. In these concussive moments we are left with a choice: to open our hearts and gather what wisdom we can or to shut down and in effect, walk away. In “The Summer Day,” poet Mary Oliver challenges “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The question streaks like an arrow shot through time from the voices of mystics, philosophers, and writers. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard answers, demanding that we “play it, lose it, all, right away, every time,” and from centuries back Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jelaluddin Rumi, and Kabir offered the same sentiment. In “The Time Before Death,” Kabir wrote:
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think … and think … while you are alive…
The time is now, the elders advise. Even in moments of great suffering, the time is now to connect deeply to the experience of our very own lives. “A mountain worth climbing,” I tell myself and my psychotherapy clients,
[Maria writes] knowing full well that it is a steep but invaluable climb. [excerpted from Every Day Counts: Lessons in Love, Faith, and Resilience from Children Facing Illness]
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….[and] to all who received him, who trusted in the Power and Radiance in him, he gave power to become children of God, who were born…of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, …full of grace and truth.”
May this prayer, written by a Jewish man, which Jesus was throughout his life, be a blessing for us all as we are reborn in this new year–
A New Year Begins
(by Alden Solovy)
Every moment a new year begins.
Every day, a new challenge.
Every hour, a new choice.
Every second, a new chance.
G-d of Old,
In this moment, a baby will be born,
And a child will die.
In this moment, lovers will marry,
And others will split.
In this moment, someone will hear
That their medical treatments succeeded,
And others will be told
To prepare to die.
Every moment a new year begins.
Let me love gently in the morning
And ferociously at night.
Let me dance wildly at dawn
And slowly at dusk.
At midnight, let me sing quietly,
And at midday I will croon, full voice.
I will breathe in a soul of compassion
And breathe out a soul of peace.
Creator of All,
Every moment a new year begins.
The flow of fresh light from heaven
Touches our hearts.
Let it be for blessing.
Let it be for healing.
Let it be for shelter.
Let it be for wisdom and strength.
Let us be, in this moment,
Your messengers of kindness on earth.
[© 2013 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.]
So may we come to the table, to eat and drink of the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing.
Here’s to the new year and life!
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark