The Joy of Witness
If I weren't going to write another piece on the Joy of Song, a really significant part of Christmas, I would go on and on right now about some of the great songs of Christmas. Not that there aren't bad ones; there are plenty of bad ones. Some of them are bad from the start; some are just "bad" from continually being sung by people who can't sing them well--"O Holy Night" stands out as my go-to example.
But my my, there are some wonderful songs related to Christmas. As I said, more on that another day. For now, I just want to talk about one of my favorites. "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Not a Christmas carol, as such, "Go Tell" is an African-American spiritual which can be traced back to as early as 1865. And it focuses on what I want to focus on tonight, what the ancient texts focus on, what the nativity creche up front in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Austin focuses, witness.
Specifically the witness of the angels to the shepherds on the mountain. Which led to the witness of the shepherds over the hills and everywhere. As with other major themes of the Christmas story, witness is a thread woven in early and late to the fabric of the narrative, a key part of the imaginative presentation and reception in history of the birth of Jesus.
To celebrate Christmas, if it includes hearing the readings and singing the songs and visiting the creche and exchanging gifts (and so on), is to become part of a larger, longer witness to the significance of the child and his message. Of course, in our culture, "celebrating Christmas" might look rather tame, except for the occasional argument over just how heathenish it is to greet someone with "Happy Holiday." But in other cultures throughout history, and even today, acknowledging the significance of Christmas might be a very dangerous act indeed.
So you really ought to have yourself an angel up near the top of your creche (how you get them to hang suspended in the firmament is up to you). And you really really need to have an assortment of certain poor shepherds (in Texas, cow-wranglers are allowed). Because this little story of the birth of a child opens out with those shepherds into a much larger story of a new kingdom with a new version of who's who and what's what and why it all matters anyway.
Some times I think the word kingdom freaks us out just enough to shut our ears to that aspect of the story, preferring to concentrate instead on the cute baby and that wide-eyed cow. I know I tend to go that way. But maybe we can understand kingdom better by thinking of it as reign or rule. The kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of Jesus) is realm more of a certain consciousness than of a certain space. It is a place where a new rule has come, will come, ought to come (depending upon where we are in the story). And I'm not just playing language games when I suggest that it might help us to think of the new rule as world in which we live by new rules.
The angels tell the shepherds about it. "Give glory to God" "Peace on earth and good will toward all people." Something dramatic is happening. And you need to know about it, not just know about it, but experience it. More than that, you need to become the tellers, the witnesses.
We aren't that big into witness these days I think. Stepping on toes. Pointing folks in a direction they might not want to look (or walk). When I was young Jesus Freak, we used to walk around handing out Jesus Freak material and saying things like, "Jesus loves you and I love you." Then, there might be a really pretty hippy and I'd get all tongue-tied and just keep on walking. I tried though.
But the shepherds witnessed not only by speaking but by going. When the angels said that a Savior was born, and that the child was born in Bethlehem (lying in a manger and wrapped in cloth), they "hurried to see." Well, first, according to the song, "the shepherds feared and trembled," but after that, they hurried. And then, St. Luke writes, "when they had seen him, they spread the word about what had been told them." And, he adds, "all were amazed."
I don't know if they bumped into any pretty hippies and, therefore, had trouble with the message. But I'm guessing that maybe the smile on their faces and the crazy look in their eyes said as much as any words. They were shepherds. They weren't, we assume, skilled orators or persuasive rhetoricians. They heard, they saw, they told. They did what they could. They tried.
One of the problems we have with witness is the emphasis these days on the fact that every attempt to "interfere" (the case is loaded in advance) with someone else's life journey is a kind of abuse. Everyone has a right to his or her choices, without our butting in. Someone preaching at me the other day about how wrong it is to preach at anyone, was getting all worked about it until I just whispered (ha, I never whisper), "have you never heard of an intervention?" I knew in fact that she had been part of many, on both sides, and for good.
In some cases, pointing out possible alternatives, the new rules for example, is not abusive, it is a challenge to abuse. Certainly that was the case of the witness of Wilberforce in England, who interpreted the new rules to mean the end of slavery. Certainly the witness of Thomas Becket, who died on this day in 1170 for opposing his former friend, King Henry II, was meant, at least, as a challenge to abusive power. As was the witness of Thomas More towards another Henry. As was the witness of Kayla Mueller to her Isis captors, eventually her murderers. Of course, the last three examples point out something I have suppressed so far in this reflection. The word witness and the word martyr are the same work in the New Testament.
I apologize for that. The shepherds, though, we assume, returned to their mountain, their sheep, their families, their previously mundane lives with a super-charged sense of significance.
Those who heard, the ancient text says, were amazed. Actually, the story itself is rather amazing. Some of you, I'm sure (as well as me some of the time), would say, sarcastically, rather unbelievable. The point though is that the amazing quality of the Christmas story is not based on the amazing abilities of those who tell it, who witness to it, who participate in it. It is experienced as amazing, especially by those who recognize their need for the amazing love embedded (literally) in the Christmas event.
Not that shepherds are never amazing. When I was on the Camino, I was walking somewhere up on a mountain in Spain and all of a sudden there was . . . a shepherd, like out of . . . the world of shepherds. And sheep. True story. He was from the Middle East. That whole thing was amazing.
Anyway, I've got some lovely little navidads (nativity scenes from Mexico and Central America) that I like to give away to people I like to give things to. They are humble little works of art. They are nothing THAT special. They were not commissioned by Pope Leo the Lion or anything. To me, though, they are amazing.
They are amazing because they embody or at least reflect the good words from the good old song, "Down in a lonely manger/ Our humble Christ was born/ And God sent us salvation/ That blessed Christmas morn." Lowly, humble, fearful. Still, they hurried. The wise men, kings perhaps, got a star and, with some shrewd calculations, figured things out (save that for another Joy). The shepherds got a song and a big light. They were stunned. But they finally got it moving. And once they got in gear, the world hasn't been the same.
Oh, there have been lots of problems with the people who say they follow the new rules and lots of problems, for sure, with what folks call "witness." But I'm not blaming the shepherds. Especially in their Central American peasant outfits sitting on Missy's cool antique table.
We can all agree about the problems. Let's also agree about what a great song "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is. And, whether we want to be witnesses or not, how bound up Christmas is with the fact that participating in it means witnessing to something profoundly significant. A new ruler. New rules. The lowly manger with poor shepherds and some very cute animals has become the center of the universe. And this story, some people discover, amazingly, can change their worlds.
Perhaps we can retrace our steps. Or follow in theirs. It's an amazing story and we are in it.
Let's start with listening for the angels. And being afraid. We can all do that much.