A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Nativity – Jesus' and Ours - 2006
December 3, 2006
The Night Army
When the Night Army surrounded the shepherds near Bethlehem (Luke 2:13-14), the shepherds had good reason to be terrified. It wasn't just the spine-tingling supernatural that spooked them. With or without angels, Armies were a terrifying reality of everyday life for the whole peasant underclass of Galilee and beyond.
• Caesar's Armies
• Herod's Armies (with Temple Police)
• “Peasant Armies”
There were Caesar's Armies. In their zeal to put down rebellion in any village, their Centurions did not hesitate to bulldoze every last local hovel. That's what had happened just up the road from where Joseph and Mary lived, in Sepphoris, about the time that Jesus was born. The substantial town had subsequently been rebuilt as a tax-collecting and security garrison and pleasure town after the Graeco Roman pattern. Emmaus, near Jerusalem, had also been torn apart after an insurrection following the death of Herod the Great. The Roman General, Varus, hunted down the fleeing villagers and crucified two thousand of them. This was the same army that enforced Caesar Augustus' command that the whole world was to be “counted” – for taxation and homeland security purposes. They supervised the forced temporary resettlement of the whole Jewish population back to the places of their birth. Paying tribute or tax to Caesar was as much a control mechanism as an economic demand. Tax-evasion was taken to be treason and punished accordingly.
Then there was King Herod's army. For all his being Herod “the Great”, Herod was a lackey of Rome who bribed his brutal way into power. His soldiers, police and informers were closely allied with the Jerusalem Temple 's elite, themselves in turn political appointees and often relations of Herod. Herod the Great was known elsewhere throughout Asia as an extravagant benefactor. He bestowed and secured the naming rights for many a public amenity: here an aqueduct, there a colonnade, there a statue, sometimes a whole magnificent city like Sebaste or Caesarea Maritima. He even underwrote the Olympic Games. His ultimate benefaction, as “King of the Jews” was the new Temple in Jerusalem that so bedazzled Jesus' disciples and which so disgusted Jesus himself, himself also ironically acclaimed by Pilate as “King of the Jews”. And how could such dazzling magnificence all be funded? By sucking out the last drop of blood from the Palestinian population. No wonder rebellious leaders arose in villages and amongst the shepherds, citizens now (through this brutal profligacy) of a truly “failed” State. It was no fault of the people that the State “failed”. The People were made to fail by the appalling inroads upon their basic living conditions by layer after layer of tax collectors, backed up by layer after layer of ruthless military.
To these two armies of Caesar and Herod must be added the “peasant armies” which inevitably gathered around local wannabee Messiahs like Barrabas. The relentless rule of Rome and the crazed fear of the Herods moved immediately against such hasty wild-cat militias and against those segments of the trembling civilian population amongst whom they arose. Thus came many massacres of “holy innocents” by Herod and Caesar seeking to control and make example of the least suspicion of dissent and revolt.
A People Subjected to Multiple Terror
Jesus was thus not the only Messiah to emerge in Israel. Nor were the babies of Bethlehem the only ones to be put to the sword in a genocidal attempt to root out future rebels. No wonder Mary and Joseph was as terrified as the shepherds of the consequences of the arrival of a baby so dramatically singled out as messianic “King of the Jews”. No wonder Herod was himself as much afraid as insulted when the Magi, the Wise Men from the distant Magical Lands of past great empires, came to him as King of the Jews enquiring where this new “King of the Jews” was about to be born. The sword that would take such a bloody toll of the Bethlehem babies would indeed pierce the heart of Mary also. The alert young Mary didn't need the wise old Holy Man Simeon to tell her that.
The Film The Nativity Story
Who could forget Keisha Castle-Hughes, star young woman of Whale Rider?
Her next film has just premiered in the Vatican.
It's the first film ever to premiere in the Vatican – the first Hollywood one that is.
The film is The Nativity Story. The NZ Herald gave it a good write-up.
The Censor warns that the film goes beyond “low-level violence” to the real stuff. And that is the film's chief reality. The film makers pride themselves that they have portrayed Mary and Joseph as real persons. But in this they are more successful with the soldiers and Herod – father and son – Herod the Great and Herod the Not-So-Great you might say. True: compared with the detail sketched early in this sermon, the violence is somewhat subdued, beginning from the few frames of the slaughter of the Bethlehem Innocents through the brief glances at peasants crucified amongst tree foliage along Mary's route to see her cousin Elizabeth.
But Keisha is quite an improvement on Cecil B de Mille, also on quite a bit of pulpit oratory. She brings us closer to the lives of this peasant community amongst whom Jesus spent his whole life as far as we know. Jesus certainly knew his People's situation intimately. Once we ourselves appreciate the reality of the People and of the Messianic Prophet on whom they gambled their precarious lives, the Bible is far more authentic for us. The con-text of the life and the text - that of the New Testament - produced by the life of Jesus with his disciples belong inseparably together. The same is true of the context and the text of our own life in this new millenium.
The New Millenium's new Questioning
All these brutal facts shed a different light upon the Christmas Story. Indeed they are only the beginning of a vast questioning about the meaning and life-project of Christianity. That questioning can take a typically secular turn:
• did the Bible really happen?
Or it can take a far more radical turn:
• does the bible really happen?
This second question is what haunts me, especially when there are no easy answers at hand. For me, the bible does and has really happened in our lifetime – over these last forty years in particular. I would think this is true for many of you too. The issue is not whether angels really exist or whether Mary really was impregnated by Holy Spirit in some literal way. The issue is more that the Bible does actually resonates with our experience of life – just how this happens is intuitive, hard to track down, and difficult to put into words. And this is a resonance that is both personal and political; relational and communal.
This large new questioning that is arising in our millennium is
• not so much the old secular – sceptical questioning but rather:
• “sociological” questioning as to where we want our world to go as a whole inhabited and fragile Earth and
• how can we do something about that
• together, communally (as church and as society) and as intimately inter-related individual human persons: sisters and brothers; parents, grandparents and children together.
This “new” questioning turns out to be surprisingly similar to the questioning that pervades the Second – the “New” Testament.
The Night Army turned out to be a genuine “Good News” Army
It was initially terror that was inspired in the peasant shepherds by the Night Army accompanying the Angel. And imagine their relief when this “Army” (the word “Army” is translated as “Host”) turned out to be a fantastic Choir: a thousand Vienna Boys' Choirs, a couple of thousand Kiri te Kanawas, a few legions of basso profundos, and four hundred or so cohorts of frantic tenors thrown in for good measure. Add another parade ground in the sky altogether for U2 and its audience. And how their shepherd ears were eased at the astonishing message: not more taxes, more censuses, more Herods and Caesars, more hatred and bloodshed and failure! No indeed! The very reverse! “Poverty banished to Past History”. “Peace and Goodwill to All People – No Exception!”.
The Nativity Story is a well-timed production.
In the US (and probably much the same here) 40% of the whole year's retail trade is transacted between now and Christmas
Though itself part of the Great Consumer Festival, the film gets in 25 or so shopping days before Christmas.
Same with this Sermon:
I wanted to get it in before the decibel level of the advertising drowns our senses.
I wanted us to strengthen our sense of reality even as the unreality of clever advertising seeks to manipulate us – often through our children and grandchildren…
to retain our composure and deep goodwill as we are stampeded into “shop until you drop” mode (therapeutically of course).
“Pushing forward” our Third Millenium theology of the Christmas events is not a matter for elite theologians or silver-tongued preachers only. It's vital that the hearers tell one another (including the preachers) what they think – especially if they disagree. With desire have I desired to preach this Christmas especially. Because I wan't to evoke from you your thoughts and reaction and get sufficient buzz going to survive the Christmas cacophony. I'm grateful for your hospitality in having me here with you there this morning. Perhaps – together – we can be a key part of this profound theological renewal which I believe is under way in the third millennium will only proceed from ordinary people like yourselves.
This Nativity is the Nativity of Christianity as much as the birth of Jesus the Christian Messiah. It is OUR nativity.
Who can doubt that we now in our own day desperately seek for a World beyond Empire. George Bush has tried a re-run of the old failed imperial method of globalisation. Before we judge him too arrogantly, we have to remember how the whole of the Western Church since Constantine has been an imperial Church, how we ourselves as Anglicans ended up as chaplains to the most powerful segment of that Empire. We have been a colonising and a colonised church, deeply compromised and far away from Bethlehem, the other side of the great divide between rich and poor, between Dives and Lazarus. And here I speak as a preacher of the Pakeha sector of our Anglican church in New Zealand.
Yet this church of ours over the last half century of the last millennium has stumbled upon those genuine Bethlehem truths could we but recognise them. Our Prayer Book and our new bi-cultural Constitution are a wonder of Anglicanism worldwide. And do we not owe much of this wonder to the fact of the struggle and ordination of women and the astonishing new leadership style that they have brought into every level of policy formation and decision making in our church. And do we not owe our bicultural potential to the fact that we are originally a Maori Church before we were a settler church and are now by law if not yet by nature and grace a bicultural church. And does not all this look somewhat similar to what is hoped for in First and Second Testaments of our Sacred Texts and prefigured in that nativity story which is also our nativity story?
And was not our Hikoi of Hope our very own Exodus into Royal Priesthood – assuming responsibility for the whole Nation and especially for the abolishing of its structured poverty.
Never did we do better than in that Hikoi, Pakeha and Maori together as never before; just as our new Constitution intended. Nor ever were we more despised and rejected for doing so much better.
And now, for all our weakness and absurdity, even now we are on the threshold - have in our slippery grasp – a capacity to become to become a true church for all the rich distinguished forms of humanity; no exceptions.
Te Hahi Mihinare ki Aotearoa ki Niu Tirene ki nga Moutere o Te Moana Nui a Kiwa.