Sunday, December 25, 2005

Turning the world upside-down

If you've visited Howard-Empowered People maybe you've seen me use a portion of this picture as a Gravatar. Or maybe not, as I haven't used it in a while. The painting is entitled "Mary of the Magnificat". No, I realize that the first century peasant girl who was the mother of Jesus looked nothing like that. We've been watching these shows on the National Geographic channel which explain how much at odds the usual Christmas pageant imagery is at odds with what we know about life in first century Judea. Our 12-year-old is taking great pleasure in informing everyone that "The manger looked nothing like that--the animals were in a lower room, in the same building as where the people lived!"

I don't know if he's ready to understand that stories can be true--or reflect deeper Truths--without being factually, literally true. (I read somewhere that myths are stories that aren't true on the outside, but they are true on the inside.) I think I first discovered what is beautiful and inspiring to me about this story back when we were attending a local Unitarian Universalist church. The Christmas sermon was entitled Turning the World Upside-down, and it said, in part:

And in a world where the Roman intelligentsia believed that Augustus Caesar himself was born of a virgin mother, a virgin who had a vision in a temple from a messenger from the gods, what might the author be saying? Since he or she (and we really don't know whether the author we call "Luke" was a man or a woman by the way-cases have been made for both) deliberately brings up Augustus Caesar at the beginning of the story about another virgin birth, I grow suspicious. Isn't it more likely that here is another picture inviting us to look at the world in a totally upside-down manner? The story is asking us "Is Caesar the greatest power on earth, Caesar with his power and might, his obedience and his executions, his slavery and his caprice; or, is it this peasant baby from the outskirts of civilization whose head needs to be entirely supported in the crook of his tender mother's arm? Two virgin births. But which of them is the real center of the world? Choose.

Mari herself, upon being told that she will be a mother, sings a clear song about the world turning upside down, The Magnificat, part of which you heard being sung this evening, by Peg Meckling and Edgel Alley, set to Bach's beautiful music. The Magnificat insists that the world is about to go topsy turvy. Remember the poem?

Do you see? The lofty are now scattered
through the arrogance of their own heart,
and the all-powerful rulers of earth
are pulled down off their thrones,
and poor people like me are lifted up.
The hungry are fed now,
the sated go away with empty hands.
The way I see it is this: when you worship a poor third world baby in a cattle-feeder, instead of a muscular and violent head of state on his throne, you begin to turn philosophy on its head, and certainly all theology.

And, to say (as the Christians eventually did), that this weak child nursing at its mother's breast is a wonderful picture of G-d, you get another upside-down image…not the common image of G-d as Caesar in the sky, controlling the weather, the fates of individual human beings, and meting out punishments and rewards according to bribes, but G-d, or the Ultimate, if you will, as a helpless child in a dirty, splintery cattle feeder.

By the way, I know that someone is bound to ask about the spelling G-d. Others can probably express it better than I can, but it is typically a Jewish convention. I have heard at least two explanations that I can recall--one is that if we try to give a name to the Ultimate, we risk making an idol of that name. Another is that, in the Hebrew scriptures, to name someone or something was to control them--have dominion over them. For obvious reasons, we could not expect to do that with God. Again, I'm sure someone else could explain this better, but I wanted to try to anticipate the question in an attempt to keep any confusion or curiosity about that from eclipsing the powerful truth of this story that I wanted to convey tonight.

Turning the world upside-down...that's what resonates with me. Knocking the powerful off their thrones, while at the same time recognizing the power in the "lowly" who can be all too easily dismissed by those who are content with "politics and usual". I *love* this story, and I believe in it. Well, in my heart, deep down I do. Sometimes, after the people fighting the good fight get knocked down again and again, it's hard to keep believing. At Christmas time, one thing I try to do is to remind myself that this very old story still rings True in our hearts, because there are always Caesars who need to be knocked off their thrones. It seems impossible. But the impossible can be achieved by something greater than ourselves. Maybe we call that something "God", or another name that means something similar. Or maybe that "something greater" is our sense of being interconnected, part of a larger community rather than focussed on our own narrow interests. The sense that "we're all in this together". Now, where have I heard *that* before? ;-)