Monday, December 30, 2013

The Sixth Noel: Moving in the Elements


Saint Matthew 2:14:
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.

Click on this link to listen to the soundtrack for this Noel. 

Once again, the joyful Christmas celebration is disrupted by a little thing called reality. Or tyranny, which, to me, are pretty much the same. 

I don't want to say that such things are OK. Children, divine or not, and families, holy or not,  shouldn't have to flee for their lives at the hands of evil, stupid politicians, warriors, powers. But . . . as the bumper sticker says, it happens. A lot. 

It happened to Jesus and his family, if the wild and not very sentimental story is correct. That not-very-insignificant bit of realism connects with the other dots of this story, expressed with pith and power in the old Saint Helena Island (South Carolina) gospel song, "Mary Had a Baby." 

In that amazing call-and-response version of the Christmas story, there are no sleigh rides or Christmas bells. There is, though, a mother with a baby. Born in a stable. She laid him in a manger. Shepherds heard the singing. So far, pretty humble stuff. 

Star kept shining. King Herod tried to find him (cut from this version, unfortunately so, since it reminds us of the earlier response to "What did she name him?"/"Named him King Jesus."). Forced into exile, Jesus went to Egypt, traveling on a donkey. Angels all around him.

In case you didn't realize it, I just quoted about half the song.

Those who know the song, and especially this version (since most performed versions include only three or four of the verses), know that I left out a line. I think it's one of the most intriguing and wonderful and unexpected lines in any Christmas song, gospel song, maybe just song.  

"Moving in the elements, my lord. 
Moving in the elements, my lord. 
Moving in the elements, my lord.
The people keep a comin' and the train done gone" (grammar corrected by Cockburn for some strange reason; probably some Canadian thing).

That pretty well sums things up, I think. We don't know who wrote that fine line. Probably not one person. But someone was the first to sing it. Maybe they heard it in church, or just a prayer meeting. Or maybe it was a popular expression for being left vulnerable to the exigencies of nature--the rain, the wind, heat and cold, sudden donkey stops, hunger pains, maybe lack of water, no roof over one's head, no bed, inadequate clothing, and, as they say, the list goes on. 

What a line. What an idea. Christ the Lord, the new born king, the Son of God, had given up . . .whatever THAT was he gave up for THIS. For moving in the elements. For a mother's womb, a father's rough hand of discipline, for a donkey's gait, for dirt, wind, hunger, thirst, fear, grief, temptation,  disease, a permeable skin, death.

But there's more to the elements than just pain and suffering. He was moving in the glorious elements, the "something rather than nothing" that is creation. The miraculous sun, the delicate moon, the faithful star that kept shining, the elementally composed beasts and fellow humans who, yes, can hurt us, but who also can make us laugh, scratch our backs, listen to our stories, join with us in song, stand silent with us as we watch a sunrise, and stay with us in our time of need. Or visit our grave.

Of course, there were no guarantees as to whom would do what when. No guarantees that the elements composing rocks and nails, for example, would be used to build or to destroy, to join things or crucify persons. 

That was the risk. But "the elements" is exactly what Yahweh declared good, if that oldest story means anything. And "moving in the elements" rather than escaping them is exactly where we might expect to find the one who some call "god with us" (Emmanuel). 

I saw my brother's body at its worst stage ever. A body in which he had done wonderful things and some, I'm sure, not so wonderful. At its best, to love, to generate children, to build fine things, to put counters in his brother's kitchen (when the poor professor could finally buy a house). To mount the stations of the cross in his local church. 

Even at the end, I thought, and said out loud to whomever cared to listen, he's a giant. He was. He was of the elements, elemental. Of the earth, earthy. Of the creation, a well-made creature. His skin, his mouth, his hair (damn, Gordon and I envied him his great hair), his kind eyes--they were not his shell or his husk, the reality being something and somewhere else. They were the elements in and by which he moved. 

Just so, at Christmas, we celebrate the refugee God, moving in the elements, from heaven to earth, from Israel to Egypt, from birth to death. When people call him the god/man, though it's not really something to be understood, it is something that, in a sense, makes sense of the senses. 

If he was anything, he wasn't a divine spirit hiding inside a puppet of skin and bone, just appearing to be elemental in order to get us to forget our bodies and the world around us and think about . . . what exactly were we supposed to think about again? 

For once, I'm not going to complain about Augustine. I will just say this: if Mary's baby (aka King Jesus) didn't enjoy the food and the wine and the goosebumps from the first cool wind of autumn (and the first girl he ever realized was a girl!!), and if he didn't feel the annoyance of sand under his shirt, too many hours without sleep, or not enough shade, he might as well have stayed put. 

But he didn't. 

And he did.

I'm not going to say "it's elementary." That's way too easy.   

If you didn't click on the link to listen to the song, do so now. Of if you did, go ahead and listen again. 

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