Advent III, 2017
This week our word journey encounters the word, Nativity, naturally! The children’s pageant is in an hour or so away, the auction all around us, what better word than this could we explore.
To start, and I regret to burst any bubble Jim may have, but Nativity is not a biblical word. That’s right, the word does not appear in the Bible. The tales Matthew and Luke tell of the birth of Jesus, the Bethlehem manger story, does not engage the word. In fact, as a title, it was glossed on to the story centuries later.
The word nativity comes from the Latin verb “nasci” meaning “to be born.” In Jerome’s 4th century Latin translation, the word has developed to “nativites,” meaning birth. The English form of the word, “Nativity” appeared for the first time in the 14th century. In essence the word serves as a title for the story. In fact, with a capital “N” Nativity, refers to the birth of the Messiah. A lower case “n” can refer to any birth, like the birth announcements we send in the mail today, or post on FB!
In the original Greek of Matthew’s text however, a different word is used to translate “birth.” 1:18: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah…” uses the word “genesis!”
Creation, the beginning, birth. A new creation is Paul’s phrase for the gift Christ brings to our lives. As the Nativities along the wall were unpacked for the display this morning, so too can we unpack John’s text, that says nothing about a nativity, and find in it the perfect vision of the Nativity.
Which is strange to consider for the first chapter of John’s gospel upsets our familiar telling of the Nativity story. Without the birth story, a Christmas pageant based on the Fourth Gospel would feature one child, speaking one line, in front of a curtain of black velvet: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
While this might constitute great savings in the costume, props and set departments, it would leave us feeling seasonally shortchanged.
But that is essentially what we have, a Nativity pageant with one character, saying one thing, with minimal props and sets. In fact the set is not a manger in a stable, set in a bustling city, but rather a courtroom staked in the dry desert wilderness.
John’s purpose in writing his gospel is not so much tell the story of Jesus the Messiah, but to convince people that Jesus is the Messiah. So a major theme of the gospel is to present the story as one would a court case. In his presentation John of the Wilderness is the first witness. The witness is not known as John the Baptist, as in the Synoptics, or even as Jesus’ cousin, he is plain John, the witness.
Priests and Levites from the big city want to know who this noisy man is. He won’t shut up about the light he saw fall to earth and he is running around everywhere claiming to be getting people ready for the light to come.
They want him to tell them who he is. But all John will say is that he is not the Messiah. Funny thing is, no one asked him that! When they press him to say something about himself he does not even use his own words on the witness stand. Instead he paraphrases Isaiah, “I am the voice.” He is neither light nor word, he exists simply to testify to the one who is light and word. His being is for the sole purpose of bearing witness to the one whom he is not.
Which brings us back around to Nativity. For that too is what Nativity, with a capital “N” truly is, a witness, a testimony. Whether a video clip of a preschool pageant with an angelic tug-of-war over the doll-like baby Jesus, or a church’s mash-up of the story spoken by children and acted by stressed adults, or the rich diversity of the sets on display here, each offers a singular witness to the One who is to come, who has come, who transforms the world. To set a Nativity display in your home, our church, or our worship, is to offer testimony for the Christ child.
Our role is like John’s, to testify to the light. To testify to the presence of the light in the world. That is a comfort to those huddled in darkness. It is a threat to those who will not like what it reveals about them. Like any good courtroom drama, this testimony is loaded for bear. For the light of Christ has the capacity to warm and enlighten as well as expose and burn. John’s testimony, our testimony, is that the world is about to turn. The Lord who loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing will have the last word and that Word is on the way.
The rich variety and diversity on display here, or the one already in your home, give witness to how the light breaks into each of our lives. No two, quite the same, each unique to the needs found in our lives.
As you witness the pageant, as you bid, and I urge you to bid on a Nativity, consider what display resonates with how you give testimony to Christ in your life. Three poets offer us avenues for considering our testimony through the witness of the Nativity.
Thomas John Carlisle:
I did not see
The snow start.
It was all about me
Before I bothered
To look out
Quieter than I
To work in small
It set me
Thinking of One
From another Presbyterian minister, J. Barrie Shepherd:
Terra Cotta Creche
We bought the set at Chartres
Twenty years ago and more in the
Frugal, fledgling years of early marriage-
Discovered it in the cathedral shop,
New descended from the terrifying climb
Up to the tower, all those catwalks sheer
Along the awful edges. Then the little nun
Who watched us, gentle, as we counted francs,’then counted them again.
We left the place without it,
Splurged instead on jus de fruit
At a jukebox-sounding sidewalk table,
Reasoned one more time over needs and necessaries.
How she rushed to find wood shavings and a box
She knew that, twenty years and more from then,
Our Christmases would blossom still with
Radiance of Chartres, windows, wonder!
And from poet Ann Weems:
O Lord, You Were Born
Each year about this time I try to be sophisticated
And pretend I understand the bored expressions
Relating to the “Christmas spirit.”
I nod when they say “Put the Christ back in Christmas.”
I say yes, yes, when they shout “Commercial” and
“Hectic, hectic, hectic.”
After all, I’m getting older,
And I’ve heard it said, “Christmas is for children.”
But somehow a fa-la-la keeps creeping out…
So I’ll say it:
I love Christmas tinsel
And angel voices that come from the beds upstairs.
And I say three cheers for Santa Claus
And the Salvation Army bucket
And all the wrappings and festivities and special warm feelings.
I say it is good,
So hooray for Christmas trees
And the good old church pageant.
Hooray for shepherd boys who forget their lines and Wise Men whose beards fall off
And a Mary who giggles.
O Lord, you were born!
O Lord, you were born!
And that breaks in upon my ordered life like bugles blaring,
And I sing “Hark the Herald Angels”
In the most unlikely places.
You were born
And I will celebrate!
I rejoice for the carnival of Christmas!
I clap for the pajama-clad cherubs
And the Christmas cards jammed in the mail slot.
I o-o-o-oh or the turkey
And a-h-h-h for the Christmas pudding
And thank God for the alleluias I see in the faces o people
I don’t know
And yet know very well.
O Lord, there just aren’t enough choirboys to sing what I feel.
There aren’t enough trumpets to blow,
O Lord, I want bells to peal!
I want to dance in the streets of Bethlehem!
I want to sing heavenly host!
For unto us a Son was given and he was called God with Us.
For those of us who believe,
The whole world is decorated in love.
Look at the testimony on display, the world is decorated in love. How will you testify to that?