Saturday, December 26, 2015

Baby Jesus (Christmas Eve 2015)

Baby Jesus
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

Christmas Eve 2015

The Gospel of Jesus
Jesus was a descendant of Abraham.  Jesus’ parents were named Joseph and Mary.  Jesus was born when Herod was king.  Eight days later, when the time came to circumcise him, they gave him the name Jesus.  Many in Jesus’ hometown asked, “This is the carpenter, isn’t it?  Isn’t he Mary’s son?  And who are his brothers, if not James and Judas and Simon?  And who are his sisters, if not our neighbors?   Phillip tells Nathanael, “We have found Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.  “From Nazareth?” Nathanael said to him.  “Can anything good come from that place?”

And that is all we know about the birth and family of the historical Jesus.   Those few sentences scattered throughout the gospels are all that is plausible about his parentage, family, and hometown.   

How then did we get to Christmas with virgin births, stars, angels, wise men, and December 25th?

We begin with two separate legends.   One found in Matthew and the other in Luke.   When I use the word “legend” I am not being dismissive, as if it is “only a legend,” therefore ignore it.  I am being descriptive.    Stories of miraculous births whether they are about the birth of Jesus, Moses, Augustus Caesar, or of any gods or divinely blessed mortals, are told through legend.  They are not history as we understand history.    

The ancient writers were not writing history.  They were writing mystery.   They told stories to capture the character and the meaning of the person.   When you told a story about the significance of someone’s life in the ancient world, old stories were best.   You imitated stories that were well-known and with creativity adapted them to fit the person you were celebrating.   The gospel writers were not interested in the facts about Jesus as we might be.  They were interested in the meaning of Jesus as they interpreted it. 

How did they use symbols, tropes, plots, and metaphors to tell their story and what story were they telling?   Before we ask that question, we have to ask a more basic one:  why did they need a story of Jesus (whose name by way, means savior) anyway?     

The Jews were under occupation.   When Jesus was born the occupying power was Rome.   When the gospels were created, perhaps as many as 80 to 100 years or more after his birth, Jerusalem had been burned and their temple destroyed by the Romans.  The Jews were in conflict literally and theologically with Rome.   

In Roman Imperial Theology here is how the divine powers worked.   You went to war.  You were victorious.  There was peace.    This is not unlike imperial theologies throughout history including in our own time.  God blesses the victor.    Who was the victor?  Augustus Caesar.   He was announced divine at birth.   According to legend his father was a god.   Because of his military victories and for bringing peace to Rome and quiet to the provinces, he was raised to divine status.    Coins bore the inscription that he was son of god.    He earned the title by victory in war.  

What about the Jews?  Obviously, in this theological system, they were not favored by the gods.  To the victor goes true religion.   But the Jews and the early Jewish movements that centered around Jesus did not accept Roman religion. They had a different vision of God.   The God of the Jews and of Jesus said you get peace through justice in which justice means enough for everyone.   You don’t get lasting peace through war and victory, but through non-violence and justice.    

Jesus was a Jew.  The earliest sayings and actions associated with him show him to be a wisdom teacher and social prophet.   His vision was in direct conflict with Roman theology.   Instead of war to victory to peace, his vision looked to non-violence to justice to peace. 

He articulated a vision that was already present even if at times hidden in his own tradition.   It would be a vision that would be both present and hidden again in the traditions and centuries that followed him.   His vision captured the imaginations and the hopes of those who heard him and who believed that it might be possible for everyone to have enough, to live in harmony with Earth, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and thus to live in peace.   To live metaphorically on God’s mountain where no one will hurt or destroy. 

Jesus was executed by the Romans with the assistance of local religious authorities.   But his vision did not die with him.   Stories about him were told.  Sayings were collected.   Some events remembered.   Many stories and sayings were created.  All these stories eventually made their way into theological narratives or gospels.    These narratives were not history but mystery.  They were stories of his meaning for those who told them.     

Paul was one such meaning maker.  He didn’t know the historical Jesus.  The Apostle Paul turned Jesus into a cosmic savior, a cosmic Christ, saving us from sin and even death itself.   This theology influenced the gospels.      

Two gospels in the New Testament tell of his birth.    Matthew imitated the story of the birth of Moses, also a legend.   Both Moses and Jesus are saved from ruthless leaders (Pharaoh and Herod, respectively) who slaughter innocent children in failed attempts to kill these destined heroes.    Moses grows up to lead the people from bondage in Egypt.    Jesus is like Moses.   

In Luke, the good news of the birth of Augustus and Roman Imperial Theology is turned on its head.   The language that belonged to Caesar inscribed on imperial coins and stone temples, “the savior who brings peace to the world,” is applied to Jesus whose birth announcement is given to shepherds, the bottom of the economic, social, and political ladder.    The choice is clear.   Does peace come through war and victory or through non-violence and justice?  Which god will we serve?  Which god will save us?   

Yet even within Luke and Matthew, the meaning and significance of Jesus is being shaped by other theological needs.   He is becoming more of a god than a human being and his significance is becoming more cosmic than practical.    Influenced by Paul’s theology, Jesus is the cosmic Christ who comes to die for the sins of the world.  The birth stories of Jesus both preserve his vision and move beyond it.

By the time we get to the second century, the Jesus movement has separated itself from its Jewish roots altogether.   Jesus is nearly fully god by now. He is divine and sinless, thus Mary’s virginity and her purity are emphasized.   

Tonight we will hear portions of two other legends.   The first is The Infancy Gospel of James.   It was composed in the middle of the second century.   It tells about Mary’s childhood, a birth also by the Holy Spirit.   Mary has parents, Joachim and Anna, and stories are told about them.   Joseph is an old man because it would be unseemly for Mary to have any relations with him.    We find that Mary is a teenager when she gives birth.  Jesus’s brothers and sisters become step-siblings.  They become children of Joseph born long before Jesus is born. Meanwhile Mary is well on the way to becoming a perpetual virgin.   

It is in the Infancy Gospel of James that we learn some interesting details that have become part of the tradition.   For instance, Mary rides a donkey to Bethlehem.  We also discover the tradition of Jesus being born in a cave and the magic of the silent night, when everything stops moving and becomes perfectly still at the moment of his birth.

Around the year 600, the stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood are collected into a work called The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior.  In this marvelous collection of legends, Jesus exerts divine powers from the moment he is born.    We will hear a couple of those stories tonight.  It is in this text that we learn an ox and an ass are present at the birth.   The ox and ass are in nativity scenes and featured in Christmas carols. 

On the flight to Egypt, the infant Jesus causes a palm tree to deliver fruit to his mother.   You will find a version of this story in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book.   The Cherry Tree Carol is based on this story and tells it a bit differently.   We will hear that song tonight, too. 

Also during the flight to Egypt, the first family confronts dragons, lions, and panthers.  The Baby Jesus is not afraid.  He commands them to obey and of course, they do.   He is the king of creation even at birth.

There is much debate regarding the date of his birth, December25th.    One theory is that the date is borrowed from various solstice celebrations.    But it could be that it was based on a calculation regarding Passover, the time the gospels record his execution.      Tertullian around the year 200 calculated that the crucifixion occurred on the 14th of Nisan, based on his reading of the Gospel of John.  In the Roman calendar that would be, March 25th

This same date, March 25th, was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation, or Jesus’ conception.   In other words he was believed to have been conceived on the same date that he was crucified.   Nine months following March 25th is December 25th, the date of his birth.   

This is of course all legend based on theology.  One medieval painting has the Baby Jesus coming down from heaven carrying his cross.    The theological structure is about Jesus Christ whose purpose is to die on the cross to save humanity from sin and thus offer eternal life on a new heaven and a new earth.    

We’ve come a long way from the historical Jesus. It is a challenge to discover how legends and theological traditions originate, but like Velcro balls, they pick up whatever is in their path.  

Tonight we celebrate the legends surrounding Jesus.  It is Christmas.  We embrace the magic.  We delight in the mythology.   We contemplate the theology. We pause to honor this holy night.   We open our mind and heart to the virgin, the angels, and the adoring shepherds.   We welcome Jesus Christ:  the Divine Son, Light from Light, Very God of Very God, King of Heaven and Earth.  Yes, yes.

Amidst it all, I would like to light one candle for the real person buried underneath the layers of legend and theology.   I light a candle for the vision of Jesus of Nazareth, the vision of a human being who had a hope and a conviction that there could be a lasting peace in this world, if we could be humble, wise, and courageous enough to seek justice for everyone.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

I Will Light Candles (12/21/15)

I Will Light Candles
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

Longest Night/Tidings of Comfort
December 21, 2015

Lamentations 2:28
Cry aloud to the Lord!
   O wall of daughter Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent
   day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
   your eyes no respite!

Lamentations 3:55-57
I called on your name, O Lord,
   from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, ‘Do not close your ear
   to my cry for help, but give me relief!’
You came near when I called on you;
   you said, ‘Do not fear!’

C. S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed that he wrote after the death of his wife begins this way:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.

“It is so uninteresting.”

That is the sentence that stuck out for me when I re-read that paragraph as I was preparing this message.    After we lost our son, Zach, that is what it felt like to me, too.    I had been interested in so many things.   I had many causes, many concerns, many opinions.   But after his death I really had none. 

Nothing was particularly interesting.   

That may be one of the most terrifying things about grief and loss.  We may fear that we won’t be interested in anything again.       I used to think that people who grieve can move through it if they get involved in some new project.   Maybe it’s true.  It looks healthy from the outside.   

“You look like you are doing so much better!” an observer may comment.

I am not so sure anymore about that or a lot of things.  I am not convinced that being interested and involved in new things is the only way to go.    Sometimes we get involved and interested because we are afraid of not being interested.  We are afraid of our grief.  If we keep busy we don’t have to think about it. 

There is good reason to be afraid of grief.   It isn’t particularly socially engaging.   Who wants a sad sack around?   We all know that, so we know how to pretend or leave early or not talk about our loss or loved one or whatever it might be.  

There is a song by the Beatles that I heard anew after my son died.    I never really heard the lyrics until then:

Here I stand head in hand
Turn my face to the wall
If she's gone I can't go on
Feeling two-foot small

Everywhere people stare
Each and every day
I can see them laugh at me
And I hear them say

Hey you've got to hide your love away

How can I even try
I can never win
Hearing them, seeing them
In the state I'm in

How could she say to me
Love will find a way
Gather round all you clowns
Let me hear you say

Hey you've got to hide your love away

It has been said that the pain of grief is proportional to the love for the one we have lost.   It is painful, embarrassing, and uncomfortable to watch another’s love/grief .  Hide it away is said in various ways. 

That is the world in which we live.   I think we are becoming more open about acknowledging the importance of sharing and expressing feelings associated with loss whatever they may be.    Yet, still, we who have gone through that particular dark wood know that for much of the time, most of the time, our love/grief must be hidden away. 

We may come to fear our grief because of the social cost.    Hoping it won’t spill out and embarrass us.  We do what we can to keep it down, to be cheerful even if not, to put on the game face, to pretend to be interested.   It can be especially challenging at Christmas.

But there is another cost if we do not acknowledge grief and sadness and allow it its place.   Only when we express it can we release it.  If we bury it, it remains and eats at us.  

This is why I think that the canonical authorities included the book of Lamentations in the Bible.   It is a book of grief over the loss of their nation.   It is raw. 

Cry aloud to the Lord!
   O wall of daughter Zion!
Let tears stream down like a torrent
   day and night!
Give yourself no rest,
   your eyes no respite!

I am convinced that had it not been for Lamentations, had they not given one another permission as it were to “let the tears stream down like a torrent,” that they would not have ever found anything to be interested in again.    They would never have had recovered.

The biblical authors tell one another to weep in front of the Lord.  I think it is an ancient way of making lamentation a sacred act—a holy act.   It is a way to express our love for the lost and it is done through grief.   It is done openly. 

That is why there is a service for The Longest Night or Tidings of Comfort.    It is a way to gather to express and to name our own feelings of sadness with others who understand because they are in the dark wood too.  It is a way to acknowledge grief in the open without any strings.

We need a place and we need regular rituals and we need conversation partners and friends from whom we do not have to hide our love.    We need a place to say and to hear the name of what or who we have lost and how it still hurts. 

I went to a counselor after I lost my son.  It was one of the healthiest things I did for myself.    One of the strange things about grief at least for me was the concern that I was doing it correctly.  “Am I normal?” 

“Of course you are not normal, you are you,” he said.  “Who wants to be normal?”

He told me that we are not in a fetal position 24/7, that life is like it was much of the time, except when it isn’t.   We can allow that feeling to be whatever it is.  To notice it , acknowledge it, give ourselves a break.   It is tough.   

There are times when we go back to when the pain seems as intense as when we first experienced the loss.     There are other times when I need to take time to remember him with that mix of laughter and tears and laughter again.             

“It is so uninteresting,” wrote CS Lewis.

That is true. 

And yet, I find anyway, that when I let myself express it rather than fight it or be down on myself that I am not over it, as if my son were an “it”, when I allow myself time to reflect or sit or pour over old photos or whatever I need to do, to say his name, that it does feel lighter and I can do what I must do next. 

There is a plus side to loss.   I don’t necessarily miss all the things I was interested in.  I no longer fear that I won’t be interested in anything again.   I am a bit more selective in my interests.   I have discovered some gifts in this dark wood.      

I included another set of verses from Lamentations:

I called on your name, O Lord,
   from the depths of the pit;
you heard my plea, ‘Do not close your ear
   to my cry for help, but give me relief!’
You came near when I called on you;
   you said, ‘Do not fear!’

Again, an ancient way, as I see it, of the power of expression.  Calling out our grief is a courageous act.  It is an act of a big heart.   Courage and heart share the same root word, cor.     It took a big heart for you to be here tonight.  I am glad you are here.   

The road is not so lonely and frightening when we walk it together.    

Howard Thurman is my favorite Christmas poet.  He recognizes more than most that the depth of joy is also related to the depth of sadness.    I particularly enjoy this prayer of courage, “I will light candles this Christmas.”

I will light candles this Christmas;
Candles of joy despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,

Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.


Pregnant With God (12/20/15)

Pregnant With God
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
December 20, 2015
Fourth Sunday of Advent

            Sylvia Plath

I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.

Meister Eckhart
We are all meant to be mothers of God,
     for God is always needing to be born.

Qur’an 19:1-36 (3)
     In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

     A reminder of the Mercy of thy Lord unto His servant, Zachariah, when he cried out to his Lord with a secret cry.  He said, “My Lord! Verily my bones have grown feeble, and my head glistens with white hair. And in calling upon

     Thee, my Lord, I have never been wretched. Truly I fear my relatives after me, and my wife is barren. So grant me from Thy Presence an heir who will inherit from me and inherit from the House of Jacob. And make him, my Lord, well-pleasing.”

     “O Zachariah! Truly We bring thee glad tidings of a boy whose name is John;   We have not given this as a name to any before him.”  He said, “My Lord! How shall I have a boy, when my wife is barren, and I have grown decrepit with old age?”  He said, “Thus shall it be. Thy Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me! I had created thee before, when thou wast nothing!’”  He said, “My Lord! Appoint for me a sign.” He said, “Thy        sign shall be that thou shalt not speak with men for three nights, [while thou art] sound.”
     So he came forth from the sanctuary unto his people, and signaled to them that they should glorify morning and evening.  “O John! Take the Book with strength!” And We gave him judgment as a child, and a tenderness from Our Presence, and purity; and he was reverent, and dutiful toward his parents. He was not domineering, rebellious.  Peace be upon him the day he was born, and the day he dies, and the day he is raised alive.”

     And remember Mary in the Book, when she withdrew from her family to an eastern place.  And she veiled herself from them. Then We sent unto her Our Spirit, and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect man.  She said, “I seek refuge from thee in the Compassionate, if you are reverent!”  He said, “I am but a messenger of thy Lord, to bestow upon thee a pure boy.”  She said, “How shall I have a boy when no man has touched me, nor have I been un-chaste?”  He said, “Thus shall it be. Thy Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me.’” And [it is thus] that We might make him a sign unto mankind, and a mercy from Us. And it is a matter decreed.”

So she conceived him and withdrew with him to a place far off.  And the pangs of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a date palm. She said, “Would that I had died before this and was a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!”  So he called out to her from below her, “Grieve not! Thy Lord has placed a rivulet beneath thee.  And shake toward thyself the trunk of the date palm; fresh, ripe dates shall fall upon thee.  So eat and drink and cool thine eye. And if thou seest any human being, say, ‘Verily I have vowed a fast unto the Compassionate, so I shall not speak this day to any man.’

     Then she came with him unto her people, carrying him. They said, “O Mary! Thou hast brought an amazing thing!  O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not an evil man, nor was thy mother unchaste.”  Then she pointed to him. They said, “How shall we speak to one who is yet a child in the cradle?” 

     He said, “Truly I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet.  He has made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I live, and [has made me] dutiful toward my mother. And He has not made me domineering, wretched.  Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am raised alive!” 

That is Jesus son of Mary—a statement of the truth, which they doubt.  It is not for God to take a child. Glory be to Him! When He decrees a thing, He only says to it, “Be!” and it is.  “Truly God is my Lord and your Lord; so worship Him. This is a straight path.” 

We are in the home stretch.   It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Christmas is coming up fast. 

“We’ve boarded the train, there’s no getting off,” writes Sylvia Plath in her poem, Metaphors.   

The Fourth Sunday of Advent lectionary texts feature Mary in some way in all three years.   Either the announcement from Gabriel to Mary, the angel’s announcement to Joseph about Mary, Mary’s visit to her cousin, Elizabeth, or her song, known as “the Magnificat” are read on this Sunday or a combination of the above.  

We will honor that tradition.  The final hymn will be the Song of Mary based on her own song. 

We will honor Mary in a slightly different way.   We just heard the story of Mary giving birth to Jesus from the Qur’an.    This is Mary or Maryam (peace be upon her) in the Muslim tradition.  I hope it will whet your appetite for the Sunday Starter class next year on Jesus (peace be upon him) in the Muslim tradition.   

Mary is highly revered by Muslims.  All Muslims, including scholars, regard Maryam as the most pious woman and an example of faith.  She is regarded as the holiest woman who ever lived.  A minority of Muslim scholars even regard Maryam as a prophet, the only female prophet.   

Prophets are the most important people and were especially chosen by God to  teach the faith of Islam.  Adam, Noah, Abraham are all Muslims according to the Qur’an. The beliefs of charity, prayer, pilgrimage, worship of God and fasting are believed to have been taught by every prophet who has ever lived.  

Mohammad (peace be upon him) is the seal of the prophets.  

As-Shahada is the creed of Islam: 

There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.

Jesus, known as Issa, in the Qur’an is a prophet of God.  He is not the son of God.   The first words of Jesus as an infant in the cradle are

“I am a servant of God.   He has given me the book and made me a prophet.”

The Qur’an is clear that Issa or Jesus (peace be upon him) is a prophet like the other prophets.    The section on Mary and Jesus concludes:

That is Jesus son of Mary—a statement of the truth, which they doubt.  It is not for God to take a child. Glory be to Him! When He decrees a thing, He only says to it, “Be!” and it is. 
This last line is regarded to be from Jesus:

“Truly God is my Lord and your Lord; so worship Him. This is a straight path.” 

The “they that doubt” refer to Jews and Christians.  Jews from the Qur’an’s point of view are in error because they do not regard Jesus as a prophet.  Christians are wrong because they call Jesus divine.   The phrase “it is not for God to take a child” is found throughout the Qur’an to say that there is no son of God.   There is no one begotten of God, all are made by God.   Of course, that is a direct rebuttal of the Christian Nicene Creed. 

This Surah or chapter sets the record straight.   Jesus is a servant of God, a prophet, a messenger and his message is the same as all the prophets, the truth of Islam.

“This is a straight path.”    

There are some marvelous ironies.   Jesus is believed to have had a miraculous birth.  He is a prophet who performed miracles.  He will be the one to be he judge on the final day by the law of the Qur’an.    Those are some similarities with orthodox Christian views of Jesus. 

The irony is that many, not all, but many progressive Christians do not regard Jesus as divine and regard the miracles and claims about Jesus as son of God and so forth as metaphor or legend.   

Muslims believe more supernatural things about Jesus than do progressive Christians.   

Another interesting irony is that many contemporary Muslim scholars appreciate the work of the Jesus Seminar, that is the study of the historical Jesus.    However, most Muslim scholars reject Western historical-critical methods when it comes to the Qur’an.  

The Qur’an is not like the Bible.   The Qur’an theologically is the Word of God, spoken by God through Mohammad, a perfect revelation.   For orthodox Christians, Jesus is the Word of God, a perfect revelation.    Jesus in Christianity is like the Qur’an in Islam.   

That is how important the Qur’an is for Muslims.  It is like saying Jesus is the Word of God for Christians.    That is what is at stake.   For Muslims there is a devotional relationship to the Qur’an.    You memorize the Qur’an in Arabic.   You are close to it.  It lives within you.  They are the first words you hear when you are born and the last you hear when you die.  The Qur’an is only the Qur’an in Arabic.   An English translation is not the Qur’an but a translation of the Qur’an.    The Qur’an is God speaking to you, addressing you.  

It is almost like Christians who have a personal relationship with Jesus.  So Muslims have a personal relationship with God through the Qur’an and of course  respond through the five pillars of Islam:

1.     as-shahada or the creed, There is one God and Mohammad is his prophet
2.     prayer,, five times a day
3.     almsgiving,
4.     fasting,
5.     and the Hajj or the pilgrimage to Mecca. 

For Western scholars to ask of Muslims to use Western Historical-Critical methods to find the historical Mohammad or to evaluate the Qur’an as a human book would be like asking Christians to give up on Jesus as Divine.   Can you be a Christian if you do that?  Most Christians don’t think of Christians who do that as Christian for that very reason.   That is what is at stake and that is why there is much resistance by Muslim scholars to go that way to regard the Qur’an as a human book.  If you go there are you Muslim any longer?

Interesting ironies.

For those of us who are heretics in every tradition, foolishly we tread to evaluate sacred texts and traditions from a human point of view.   When I read this beautiful story of Mary by the palm tree and a voice from below calls out to Mary,

“Grieve not! Thy Lord has placed a rivulet beneath thee.  And shake toward thyself the trunk of the date palm; fresh, ripe dates shall fall upon thee.  So eat and drink and cool thine eye.”

That sounds like the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew.   We are going to read from that Gospel on Christmas Eve.   These are stories of the birth of Jesus.    In this story written several centuries after the birth of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus are on their way to Egypt to escape Herod.  Here is the story:

And it came to pass on the third day of their journey, while they were walking, that the blessed Mary was fatigued by the excessive heat of the sun in the desert; and seeing a palm tree, she said to Joseph: Let me rest a little under the shade of this tree. Joseph therefore made haste, and led her to the palm, and made her come down from her beast. And as the blessed Mary was sitting there, she looked up to the foliage of the palm, and saw it full of fruit, and said to Joseph: I wish it were possible to get some of the fruit of this palm. And Joseph said to her: I wonder that thou sayest this, when thou seest how high the palm tree is; and that thou thinkest of eating of its fruit. I am thinking more of the want of water, because the skins are now empty, and we have none wherewith to refresh ourselves and our cattle. Then the child Jesus, with a joyful countenance, reposing in the bosom of His mother, said to the palm: O tree, bend thy branches, and refresh my mother with thy fruit. And immediately at these words the palm bent its top down to the very feet of the blessed Mary; and they gathered from it fruit, with which they were all refreshed.

This story was inspiration for the Cherry Tree Carol which you will also hear on Christmas Eve.   You can see from a literary point of view the sharing of that story with the story in the Qur’an.    

Christians who enjoy battling with Muslims love to point this out in an attempt to “prove” that the Muslims are wrong and they are right.  Conversely, Christians don’t like it pointed out that virtually every story about Jesus has a literary parallel in the Hebrew scriptures.   For instance, Jesus escaping Herod’s sword is likely a fiction based on Moses escaping Pharoah’s sword.   You can go on-line and watch the two groups battle it out in chat rooms. 

This brings up a challenge.  How do we have a respectful conversation, build important bridges, accept another’s point of view and yet speak our own truth as well?  

It is the same challenge within our faith traditions as it is between them.    Probably, if we can help it, we don’t start with the sharpest disagreements.  We might start with the things with which we share in common.    When we discover another’s sacred text, tradition, or belief we try to hear it from their point of view and see what is beautiful, good, and true in it, even as we may approach things differently.

A helpful way for Christians to approach the Qur’an is to read a respected translation and commentary.  The New Study Qur’an has now been published by Harper.  That is the translation I used in the bulletin today.  I had a chance to interview the general editor, Joseph Lumbard about it.  I am doing a series of shows on Islam.  

In the commentary on this chapter it notes that the word Compassionate is used for God.    One third of all references to God in the Qur’an as “the Compassionate” occur in this chapter. Of the ninety-nine names for God in Islam “the Compassionate” is featured in this Surah about Mary and Jesus.   Sixteen times in this Surah, God is called “the Compassionate.” 

In both Hebrew and Arabic the root word for womb is Rechem in Hebrew or Raham in Arabic.  It is the same as that for compassion.   The compassion a mother has for her child is womb-love.   Mercy, compassion, a name for God.  

The stories themselves reveal the character of God. 

In this story in the Qur’an, Mary goes away to a deserted place and a veil a hijab is placed between her and her family.   This what prophets do, including Mohammad, to be set apart to receive a revelation.   Maryam’s hijab or veil symbolizes her holiness, her set apart time, her closeness to God.    

While she apart in a holy, sacred place, the spirit of God comes to her.  This spirit in human form, believed to be Gabriel speaks to her  that she will have a pure boy.   She is astonished as she is in the gospels, “How can I when I am chaste and been with no man.”  The angel says that God just says it and it is. 

She becomes pregnant and while under a date palm goes into labor.  She cries out in aguish which is the anguish of prophets who have an important task given to them by God that will also put them at risk with other human beings.  In Maryam’s case it is giving birth without a husband.    All the prophets have something to bear.   There is a personal cost in receiving a revelation and being charged to deliver it.   Maryam witnesses to “the Compassionate” by giving birth to a witness, Issa, or Jesus. 

While she is in distress a voice tells her to “Grieve not.”  Is this voice the angel or is it Jesus newly born?   The text is not clear.  Commentators differ about this.   But the instruction is that there is a river and date palms.  Shake the tree, he says to Maryam.  She is refreshed.   “Cool thine eye” is a phrase meaning to be refreshed. 

He then tells her to take a vow of silence so she won’t have to defend herself to her family.   She sees them with her boy, and they raise an eyebrow. 

“Hey Maryam, what gives?  Your father wasn’t evil and your mother was chaste.  What is up with you?”

Maryam points to Jesus and he speaks.  

“Truly I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet.  He has made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I live, and [has made me] dutiful toward my mother. And He has not made me domineering, wretched.  Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am raised alive!” 

In other words, I am a prophet.  Don’t mess with me and don’t mess with my mama. 

What I take away from this story is that Compassion is the link between Jesus and thus Christians and Muslims.  Born of compassion is Jesus.   Womb-love.   Whatever we mean when we think of God, compassion is God’s character.   That character is revealed at the birth of Jesus.     

Mary’s womb is the place where the compassionate prophet is revealed, and thus a name for God also revealed.

The 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart said: 

 We are all meant to be mothers of God,
     for God is always needing to be born.
I take this story from the Qur’an as revelation.  Regardless of how we conceptually think of God, or how we interpret our religious beliefs, we can take away the truth that humans have the capacity to discover and even give birth to compassion and nurture compassion.  
Perhaps we are most human when we are compassionate or most reflect the divine image.    Islam when it is true to itself and Christianity when it is true to itself are faiths that embody compassion.   

It is easy to see the faults and distortions of our respective religions.     What unites us and what our gift is to the world is the hope that we can live with compassion and mercy with one another.   

People often want to talk about the true meaning of Christmas.   I think we can look to the Qur’an as much as we look to the Bible.  Christmas is where compassion and mercy shine in the darkness.    It is refreshment like date palms and a pure stream. 

May you receive the light and refreshment of compassion and share it with others.