March 7, 2011 / Praxis
When strangers at a party or on an airplane find out you’re in divinity school, …
December 6, 2011
Inevitably, it always occurs at the most inconvenient time. You know what I mean. After a long, exhausting day at work, you sit down with a warm cup of tea to catch up on Gossip Girl, and that’s when it happens. “We interrupt your regularly scheduled program for this Special Emergency Alert!” You know right away that this is not going to be good news—after all, they would never interrupt Gossip Girl to let you know that Sally found her cat or that, though it has taken years, Israel and Palestine have finally brokered a peace agreement ending violence in the Middle East. Something important is taking place and its announcement cannot wait. Pardon the interruption, but you need to know that the world has changed—usually not for the better.
Surely, things are no different for young Mary. She knows her prophets, minor and major. She’s familiar with the stories from the Torah. When Gabriel appears on the scene she knows that in the past all does not bode well for those he visits. Remember those quaint little towns on the edge of the Dead Sea, Sodom and Gomorrah? Remember what happened to them when the angel of the Lord paid them a visit? Remember the prophecies of doom in Daniel, those seventy weeks of seven, ending in cataclysm—prophecies that were passed on to Daniel by our angel, Gabriel? Remember the shadow that fell upon the Egyptians when God’s angel descended and took the lives of all their firstborn? So when the angel announces, “Mary, God is interrupting the regularly scheduled program of your life!” her first impression must have been that this can’t be good.
With all due respect to God, this is a catastrophe. The whole thing looks like a disaster in planning: a fifteen-year-old kid, pregnant! Surely, the deacons will have to meet and someone will need to confess. The church will grieve the loss of innocence and then do what we do best, pity her and her boyfriend. People will sadly remark on the fact that two promising careers have ended before they began. People will ask, “Mary, why didn’t you take birth control?” or “Joseph, why didn’t you use protection?” With a little planning, it could have all been prevented. There they are, two lives interrupted, another tragedy in the pages of small-town Palestinian history. No one would conceive of calling this God’s plan.
How odd and presumptuous of God—to spring the birth of a child upon two unsuspecting young adults. Parenthood takes a ton of planning. It’s not something you do on a whim—at least, you’re not supposed to, not in our culture. There are things that need to be set in place before you have a child. A room must be prepared, which implies that you must have a house big enough for the baby to have her own room. Provisions have to be made for the cost of the birth: the extra food and diapers, the burping cloths, the baby shoes and pacifiers. Furthermore, Mary and Joseph need a few years to get to know each other, to enjoy their marriage before they have kids. Clearly, these are things that God should have thought through in God’s great plan!
But God’s plans rarely fit with our understanding of what it means to plan, and Christmas is a time when this becomes particularly evident. After all, for us, to have a “proper” Christmas today takes a heck of a lot of planning. Delicate strategies have to be developed, with elaborate gifts that trick people into believing that we’ve been thinking about them all year. Each year, it seems that the rush catches up with me as I shop for my nieces and the nephew, my parents, and my brothers and sister-in-laws. Each year, I must puzzle over what to get them and where to find the best deals. It really becomes a headache and a hassle because I’ve, more often than not, failed to plan ahead. And at times I’ve come close to having nothing to put under the tree. For us, Christmas is a production that you don’t want to be caught not having planned for.
Some of you may have seen the story of the sixty-one-year-old man in South Charleston, West Virginia, who collapsed in a Target and who, as he lay on the floor unconscious, was trampled upon by frenzied shoppers this past Black Friday. On the same day in Kinston, North Carolina, a woman pepper-sprayed other shoppers in order to get her hands on an Xbox. In Porter Ranch, California, another man was shot to death outside a Walmart when a group of men attempted to steal the merchandise he was carrying. Now, how many of us can truly remember what we got for Christmas last year? And yet, our plans to have the perfect Christmas drive us out to Walmart to buy shit for people who don’t need it, even if that means killing a few people in the meantime. These plans are powerful—Walmart reopened its door five hours later for people who had to buy gifts—for without gifts, Christmas is not possible.
This is true: without gifts Christmas is not possible. But here’s the catch: notice that in the story of Mary and the Christ-child, we humans don’t give anything. The Messiah arrives here on the wings of history—away from the spotlight, in a tiny corner of a country—as a gift to two people who are completely unprepared to handle it. Surely, Mary has some sense of the curve ball that has been thrown into her life by this present from the Lord. Surely, she must be stricken with anxiety, not knowing how this will all work out. She must be confounded that God would choose to arrive here and in this way. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s happening—all other plans are out the window, for to be the mother of the Messiah is going to require that she learn how to ad-lib. The Holy Spirit is on the move and the Spirit rarely pays any heed to career paths, life stages, or our own sense of being ready.
A few weeks ago I watched an interesting movie that one on my friends recommended, Lars and the Real Girl. It’s a quirky drama that takes place in a strict Lutheran town in Northern Minnesota, a place similar to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. Lars is a shy, awkward guy who withdraws from conversations and seems to avoid the development of any kind of a relationship. When he finally brings home the woman of his dreams to his brother and sister-in-law’s home, they are shocked and mortified to discover that she is a sex doll Lars has ordered off of the Internet. Sex, however, is not what Lars has in mind—after all, he is a good Lutheran. Instead, Lars is completely convinced that this girl, Bianca, is real and that they are dating—as he suffers from a mental disability that produces delusions. Eventually the resources of the entire town, particularly Lars’s church community, are enlisted to take care of Bianca—wheeling her around, putting her to bed, making space for her at the Christmas party. The community welcomes this interruption, though it is taxing and somewhat annoying to all of them, as a way of loving Lars.
Similar to the interruption of Bianca for Lars’s community, my guess is that when the Christ-child arrives for you and for me, he will arrive as an interruption. That is to say, he’ll arrive for us in a way that we will be tempted to avoid because it seems to be more of a hassle or a catastrophe than a gift. The announcement of his arrival will come for us just like it did for Mary—making a mess of everything. The question is, will we be ready to receive him? I don’t mean that we will have to have everything planned; as a matter of fact, he will probably arrive in a way that breaks all of our plans. But will we receive him as he comes—the possibility to adopt, just when the last of the kids have left for college and we were about to retire; the chance to share our Christmas dinner with someone who is alone; an opportunity to receive a poor immigrant family into our home? This you can count on, he will come as an interruption. When the Christ-child arrives on our door will we be able to join Mary in saying, “May it be for your servant as you have spoken”? (Luke 1:38).
We try to teach our children every year that Christmas is about giving. We try to teach them that to be mature and strong Christians they need to learn how to give—just as we have. What we may end up actually teaching them, however, is how to be good members of a consumer culture. The genius of capitalism is that it takes one of our most holy days, commodifies it, and sells it back to us for a profit. So maybe this Christmas we should learn a lesson from our children and learn how to receive. Indeed, that is the announcement of the good news—receive!
But I think there is something else going on here with the interruption of Advent, for this is no normal break from the ordinary. We are tempted to forget this because in our Bibles, these gospels are only a few pages behind the last of the Minor Prophets. Hence, we think that only a matter of hours or days has passed since God last spoke to his people and the Spirit last moved. But a solid two hundred years have passed and some eight hundred years have passed since the time of David when Israel was at its height. Ever pick up a medical book or a business manual from two hundred years ago? There’s not much there that’s helpful for our daily lives and professions. Do you think anyone today is eagerly awaiting new breakthroughs in the bleeding of patients or seriously entertaining a return to the gold standard? Is anyone today really hoping that the Holy Roman Empire will be revived? Israel at the time of Mary, it seems to me, must have been quite accustomed to these old stories as being just that, fond old stories. The prophets might have been interesting in a historical sense, but their words of instruction and prophecy probably failed to pique much anticipation by the time of Mary. The establishment of David’s throne was a hope long since lost, and the movement of the Holy Spirit was perhaps considered folklore from a less hardened time.
Gabriel’s annunciation had been a long time coming. His message was not one you’d find on page two of the morning paper; it would be the headline. Christ’s coming is no mere interruption; it’s God’s ancient message of hope finally come true and in the flesh! This is the very beginning of the end—the beginning of redemption, the beginning of the world come again. Many of us are used to business as usual, and we may feel like these are a bunch of old stories that are not very useful anymore. We may find ourselves underneath a shadow of doubt and despair. But just maybe that is the shadow of the Spirit moving on us just like it moved on Mary. For those of us who barely made it through the year, God’s salvation will be born again this Christmas day. And those of us who are working so hard to make ends meet will find that God is working on our side. The old tales of David’s throne, of friends to rely on, of peace in our community and love in our lives, thank God, will interrupt our routines.
Pardon the interruption. It is here! The Christ-child will come in a few short days. Hope is so near you can almost taste it. Blessed are we among people; he is near. Take heart, for in the words of Saint Paul, “Our salvation is closer now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11). Just as Christ’s first arrival was announced to Mary out of the blue so many years ago, his second coming is now only just before us—pardon the interruption, but he is very near. The Spirit is on the move and we may very soon find our normal lives turned upside down, interrupted. And so, let us say with Mary, “May it be for us his servants, as God has spoken.”
Dan Rhodes is Editor-in-Chief of The Other Journal. He is also Minister of Political and Missional Life at Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina, and the author (with Tim Conder) of Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community (Baker Books, 2009). He is currently a candidate for the doctorate of theology at Duke University Divinity School. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Elizabeth.