No hope too small: The entire Christmas season is thanks to a tiny seed of hope in the nowhere town of Bethlehem.
Self-appointed liturgical police are distressed when seasonal boundaries aren't respected. They protest that Advent as a whole has been devoured by our eagerness to get to Christmas; evergreens should not be decorated or even appear until Christmas Eve. But try telling that to the kids. Or to my 90-year-old mother, as anxious to put up the tinsel as any toddler.
Theological purists are likewise offended by Santa and his minions and all the other publicly displayed year-end symbols that water down "the reason for the season" to the point of rendering the celebration cheap and meaningless. Wrapping your house in sparkly stockings of light is vaguely festive--but festive of what exactly?
Happily, most of us aren't liturgists or theologians. We're not prone to overthinking what "joy to the world" is supposed to look like. Participating in a month-long party at the cold, dark end of the year just plain feels good. I'm not bothered by the questionable aesthetics of some of my neighbors' decorative choices. I know these people. They work long hours at deadening jobs, and they don't come home to a very cheery reality. If a fat, vinyl Santa shuddering near the front porch gives them a reason to grin at the end of the day, I'm glad for them.
Some folks of course seem to be in a contest to offer the most baroque holiday display in town: reindeer mixing it up with the Madonna and child or candy canes dueling inexplicably with crosses. Others prefer the classic look of a single white candle shining purely in every window--even though they're not real candles, which would surely set curtains ablaze. Whether you hang a simple wreath on the door or crowd your front yard with a 24-piece life-size nativity set, these are all signs of cheer and hope, and that's good news. I feel more concern for folks who display no sense at all that this season matters to them, no outward acknowledgment that darkness giving way to light makes any difference to their routines. Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, or Ho Ho Ho, call it what you will, but would you join me in a little hope this December?
The seed of hope is what we celebrate at this time. A seed is a tiny thing: a kind word, a little baby, a new star in the sky, a light flickering against the dark. This seed will one day be immense: a gospel of hope, a king of kings, a sun of righteousness arising with healing in his wings, a path breaking through the dark valley of sin and death.
That's all really big stuff. For a society as short on hope and long on cynicism as ours, it's probably unrealistic to start an evangelizing message at the end of the process, which is the incarnation of the eternal God into time. It may not make sense to interrogate people on why they choose to say "happy holidays" in December instead of confessing their religion, dogma-forward. To plant a seed you offer a sugar cookie--not the New American Bible Revised Edition.
In December we have the opportunity to sow lots of seeds. We can leave a card with cash for the mail carrier and the sanitation crew. We might bake for everyone who's good to us all year long: the children's teachers and bus drivers, our coworkers, the parish staff. Don't forget the choir at church, especially the soprano section. (Full disclosure: I'm a soprano, and I like gingerbread.) Send cards to everyone in your address book--the paper kind, the e-kind--just to let them know you haven't forgotten them. Pass strangers with a smile and a merry greeting. Visit the sick. Call someone from whom you've been estranged or who's been neglected. Incarnation, after all, is at the heart of the story we're sharing. If we really want to profess our faith this season, we begin by offering our own hopeful presence.
Why focus on seeds? Because the first Christmas was a seed: small, humble, and quiet. It was a silent night, remember? This story didn't take place in a happening town like Jerusalem but in Nowheresville, Bethlehem, Micah reminds us. Micah himself makes the case for littleness. He's a minor prophet among the Hebrew seers. Imagine spending history categorized as a minor league prophet. Unlike the three prophets regarded as major--Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel--Micah and 11 other seers suffer the indignity of having their prophecies lumped together on a single scroll. Maybe their output wasn't extensive or some of it was lost or not that memorable to begin with. The careers of some minor prophets were cut short by assassination; tradition claims this to be true of Amos, Joel, Habakkuk, and Zechariah. Not all prophets were as blessed as Isaiah, whose students continued to add to his scroll for a century after his death.
In Micah's case, he had the misfortune of being the fourth prophet to come along in the eighth century BCE, after Amos and Hosea and coinciding with the career of Isaiah. How many prophets can the populace attend to before it all gets rather repetitive? Yes, we've heard all this before: idolatry, social injustice, surrounding nations threatening. We get it: In a volatile political climate, this is no time to alienate our God. Micah's greatest misfortune was to share the same generation and territory with the greatest prophet of biblical history. Enduring this kind of competition must have made Micah wonder if it was worth getting out of bed some mornings.
There's evidence that Micah was a bigger deal back then than he is to Bible readers now. He's quoted in Jeremiah, where it's noted that Micah was a pretty bad dude to have preached doom to his king and not been put to death for it. In fact Micah's success in changing God's heart and averting disaster is likewise cited (see Jeremiah 26:17-19). Perhaps if Isaiah's school hadn't remained open for generations, we might have more esteem for his contemporary colleague.
What we do remember from Micah is one banner-worthy phrase: "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). Perhaps it's due to this same humility that we rarely recall the prophet who produced these words.
Maybe it takes a truly minor prophet to appreciate that big things come in small packages. Micah proclaims that little Bethlehem will produce a ruler whose greatness reaches to the ends of the earth. This seed of an idea survives six more centuries to trouble mighty King Herod, jealous of his authority. Micah couldn't have foreseen the details of our nativity pageants, candy canes, and Christmas trees. What he intended to launch into the bloodstream of history is simply hope: vulnerable as a newborn, more powerful than empires or armies. If this hope seeps over the borders of neat liturgical seasons or beyond our preferred symbol system, it may not be cause for alarm. Hope has to start somewhere.
By Alice Camille, author of the illustrated Isaiah and the Kingdom of Peace (ACTA Publications) and other titles at alicecamille.com.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2018|
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