Blessing and Burden on the [Third] Way

three-waysHumorist and actor Robert Benchley, in a piece for Vanity Fair in 1920 said,

“There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.”

Benchley succinctly describes our penchant to divide the world into opposing camps and to align ourselves with one of them. Then in a witty twist, he provides a third option–of seeing the world in a way that does not do so.

I’ve written in the past on the idea that those who call themselves Christ followers are a People of the Third Way. In fact, one of the earliest referents to followers of Christ was to refer to them as “the Way” (Acts 9:2). Early on, this group, particularly as Gentile adherents joined those of Jewish descent in following Christ, did not fit the conventional way of dividing the world into Jew and Gentile. Some other name was needed. Eventually, the term Christian (“of Christ”) was used of the mixed Jewish and Gentile community in Antioch by outsiders.

I was recently at a conference that brought home to me the blessing and burden of being this people of the [Third] Way. The conference focused on the Magnificat, and of our calling as like that of Mary. One of the observations made by a conference speaker was that Mary came neither from the ruling class nor was part of a radical counter movement. She was a very young women, perhaps as young as thirteen, from a hill country town of Nazareth. God chooses to enter the world, and accomplish God’s redemptive purposes through this apparent nobody–a non-entity on the political map of her day. And she says “yes” to the blessing of, and the burden of bearing the Christ into the world.

There was indeed blessing. To be the one who is chosen of God to birth this one who incredibly is fully God and fully human. To be an instrument of bringing God’s saving work into the world. To birth one whose rule would outlast every power and every movement of her day.

And there was burden. Of course the burden of every child-bearing woman of carrying a baby for nine months. But there was more. Doing so under what seemed suspicious circumstances–who is the father? Doing so under the forced migration of the census, a naked wielding of Roman power. Doing so under the threat of Herod’s genocide and the life of a refugee. And there was Simeon’s prophecy of the great, and yet terrible destiny of her son “(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) (Luke 2:35).”

Being a Third Way People is never easy. Most of us are “burden averse.” We just want the blessing, which is why I think we align ourselves with one pole or another of the dichotomies that our human systems create. We choose to be “conservative” or “liberal”, “Left” or “Right”, “Red” or “Blue”, “orthodox” or “progressive”. We identify with movement slogans like “creation care” or “responsible stewardship”, “Black lives matter” or “All lives matter.” It makes life simpler–you don’t have to wrestle with the tension of the truth of “the other” and the living in community with “the other.” But life is also smaller, and a constant struggle for survival in a zero sum world.

The challenge for Third Way People is different. It is to walk in the tension of blessing and burden, of truth and grace. Another speaker at our conference proposed that we most flourish as human beings when we live in the paradox of being both strong and weak, living with the authority to use our gifts and the vulnerability of our sins, failings, and blind spots, and of a world deeply in pain.

What does that tension look like for me? One is the tension of coming from a lower income, working class neighborhood, and working among the educated elite–sectors of society that tend to hold each other in contempt in our current socio-political life. Another is working in a historically “evangelical” organization committed to “the faith once delivered” and “the communion of the saints” while also seeking to be “ever reforming” as we seek to bring the good news of the kingdom into every corner of the university world addressing people who have experienced injustice and pain because of ethnicity, because of their sexuality, and sometimes because of their encounters with culturally captive forms of Christianity. It means working in a marketplace of ideas in which I see reflections of the glory of the Creator in every discipline of the university, and the effects on thinking of human alienation from that Creator.

How does one live in the tension of the Third Way, the tension of blessing and burden? Again, there is the example of Mary, who said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Mary didn’t understand how she would conceive a child without a man or work out life with all the complications such a pregnancy would bring. She simply said “yes” to the Lord to live with the tension of bearing Christ into the world. Some time back I read a book titled, The Way is Made by WalkingI often want to know the way, to work out how to “walk in the tension” in my mind, before I walk in it with my feet. It seems that Mary’s message is that we walk the way by saying “yes” to what we know, by trusting where we do not, and by cherishing Christ who dwells within who we bring into the world. Mary walks to Elizabeth, to Bethlehem, to Egypt, to Nazareth, and ultimately to the cross. In it was blessing and burden. Because of her and through her son, a Way was made for us all, and a calling to be the People of the [Third] Way.

 

 

 

 

Magnificat

 

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The Magnificat, James Tissot

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
 And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
 as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” 

(Luke 1:46-55, English Standard Version: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.)

My hunch is that among all the Christmas songs you listen to this season, you may not hear the words to this song sung, unless you listen to one of the classic works in Latin by people like Bach, or more contemporaneously, John Rutter. This version, in English, by John Michael Talbott captures beauty of this song, but doesn’t get much airplay.

I was reading these words this morning in the lectionary readings I follow. It is a song that helps “prepare the way” of our hearts for the one whose coming we celebrate on Christmas Day. I’m struck by the fact that what we hear is the overflow of a prepared heart filled first with the words of Gabriel at the Annunciation, and then cousin Elizabeth’s response,

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Mary was probably no more than a teenage woman. I’m staggered that as a betrothed but not married woman who finds herself pregnant that she can say such things. She sees beyond her “problem,” believing the words of both Gabriel and Elizabeth that this most unusual conception is because she, of all women in history, would bear God incarnate in her womb.

She is from a backwater village, if Nazareth was her home at the time these things occurred. She is far from the centers of power, whether Jewish power in Jerusalem, or the power of imperial Rome. Yet she sees in her story the beginnings of the “great reversal” where those of “humble estate” like her are exalted and blessed, and the proud, mighty, and rich brought down.

Promises to Abraham, long forgotten or despaired over, will find fulfillment in the baby growing within her. Promises to make of Israel a great nation, to give them a land of their own, to bless nations through them. At the time, there seemed little hope of this with the nation under the thumb of Rome. Yet the people of God, the new Israel that would be birthed out of the life and death and raising of this baby would spread to the nations, while Rome would collapse.

One of the more beautiful recent Christmas songs is “Mary Did You Know?” (performed beautifully by Pentatonix in this video). The song asks if Mary knows that the baby she will deliver will deliver her and her people, and later that the child she is holding is the great “I am.”

My sense is that in some way, perhaps still forming like the child inside her, Mary would say “yes.” She magnifies the Lord, which carries the idea of “extol, or glorify.” But she also makes God BIG, and the powers that be small.

As I reflect on Mary’s words I find great hope in a time when many of my friends are despairing as they see both events in the world, and events in our own country (the United States). I think many of us feel of “humble estate” and wondering what we can do among the powerful and the violent. If we would identify as followers of Christ, this also means in some way we also “carry” Christ, this one who rules, and over-rules the nations. Powers have indeed risen and fallen, the violent have attempted their worst–and ceased. And the rule of Christ, often carried by those of “humble estate” keeps spreading from nation to nation. The seemingly powerless, like a pregnant teenage girl from an insignificant place both carry the Lord of creation, and like Mary, are looked upon by him. And because she opened her heart and her whole body to this, we to this day call her “blessed.”

The Unsung Hero of Christmas

Joseph often strikes me as the unsung hero of the Christmas story. Of course the greatest hero is the Christ child, the Incarnate One who enters our world as a helpless babe for our salvation. And there is Mary, who receives Gabriel’s message with the words, “I am the servant of the Lord” even though the thing asked of her meant the possibility of being seen as an unwed mother and of having been unfaithful to Joseph, her betrothed. It is she who carries this child, who births him in difficult circumstances, and whose own heart will also be pierced as she one day beholds her crucified son. In most of our Christmas carols, however, Joseph gets less “air time” than the angels, the wise men, the shepherds or even the mythical drummer boy!

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Joseph is known for what he did not do. He did not denounce Mary or even put her away quietly. He took her as wife and, to leave the matter beyond question, did not have relations with her (a model of the possibility of restraint in our sexualized culture!).

What he did do is obey the angelic command and believe the declaration that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that he would save his people from sin. His belief and obedience carried them to Bethlehem, to Egypt, by roundabout ways to Nazareth. He raised the young boy, likely teaching him carpentry because Jesus is referred to both as the carpenter’s son and the carpenter whose father was Joseph. He and Mary anxiously searched for him after their visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 and Jesus stayed behind to converse with the religious teachers. This is the last we hear of Joseph alive.

Joseph, to me, represents everyday faithfulness, the behind the scenes kind of faithfulness that is usually only noticed by its absence. He does what needs to be done, whether finding an alternative to guest rooms, getting the family out of danger, and supporting a family and mentoring a son in a physically exacting and demanding trade. Carpentry likely included construction work as well as craftsmanship. And one also wonders if he had a role in teaching his son the scriptures, perhaps in conjunction with synagogue life.

It strikes me that Joseph might be the kind of hero we need to pay more attention to in our celebrity-driven culture, both outside and inside the church. We often seem to want to spend more time giving adulation to these celebrities, or if we are particularly ambitious, trying to become one of them. Joseph’s life calls us to a different path, the path of resolute but quiet belief worked out in love for those around us, obedience to God’s commands even when these don’t make sense (something that happens sooner or later for anyone who follows Christ), and the diligent stewardship of what is entrusted to us.

Joseph often seems a “bit player” in the Christmas story. Yet without him, there would be no story. And isn’t that the way it is for most of us? Isn’t it the case that the people who have had the greatest impact in our lives are usually not celebrities but likely those whose names will never appear in history books? Who has been a Joseph to you? And for whom can you be a Joseph?

Merry Christmas!