Twelfth Night Tense


Twelfth Night brings the Christmas tree, decorations and cards down, and the world seems to breathe a sigh of relief as life gets back to normal. ┬áBut let’s not be too hasty about dis-carding Christmas. Christmas isn’t just for retailers. Christmas is a revelation of our darkness, the depth of winter and the coldness of our hearts. Christmas presents us with guiding light, the promise of peace to thaw our bitterness and hearts that jump from fear to joy.

One last look at the Christmas tree celebrates an evergreen love of the three tenses captured by Dickens in the Christmas Carol. The light of God shone in the darkness (Genesis 1:3) long before there were sun, stars and moon. The light shone and shines in the darkness as our Lord is come. And before too long – just when the time is right – there will be no more darkness or night (Rev. 22:5).

Borg & Crossan, in their book, First Christmas, project a political context for the first Christmas. The darkness was the tyranny of empire with the background being “the day the Romans came” raping and killing in the villages around Sepphoris, including Nazareth. The light has not overcome the darkness. Borg and Crossan rightly point out that empire still exercises its dark powers “to shape the world as the empire sees fit”, achieving peace through war, violence, injustice and oppression. Christmas has its future in shalom – peace through justice, love – and US, because in the words of Augustine: “God without us will not; we without God cannot.”

Here is what Borg and Crossan write as they imagine Mary taking Jesus to the top of the Nazareth ridge:

“We knew they were coming”, Mary said, “but your father had not come home. So we waited after the others were gone. Then we heard the nose, and the earth trembled a little. We did too, but your father had still not come home. Finally we saw the dust and we had to flee, but your father never came home. I brought you up here today so you will always remember the day we lost him and what little else we had. We lived, yes, but with these questions. Why did God not defend those who defended God? Where was God that day the Romans came?” (p.78)

Twelfth Night

Today is Epiphany – January 6th. Twelfth Night – down with that tree and away with that tinsel. Highlight of the season has been reading The First Christmas by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. This has given spiritual direction for this wonderful season. Borg and Crossan describe the birth stories of Matthew and Luke’s gospels as “parabolic overtures” for their whole gospel of joy and conflict – personal and political.

Today, Epiphany, focus is on the story of the visit of the Magi who travel one road and then return by another road. The road they travel is to the palace of Jerusalem. Of course, they would go that way. The way of the worldy wise is to the palace and the court. They discover how wrong they are. In Breugemann’s phrase, they finish “9 miles wide”, and discover their journey’s end (and their beginning – TS Eliot) to be not at the court of Herod but in the outbuildings of an inn in Bethlehem. Their return “by another road” signifies repentance – a change of mind – demanded by the Jesus of the Gospel. “They no longer walked the same path, but followed another way.”

Messrs Borg and Crossan wonder whether I am “like the Magi who follow the light and refuse to comply with the ruler’s plot to destroy it.” Or whether I am like Herod “filled with fear and willing to use whatever means necessary to maintain power, even violence and slaughter.” Am I among those “who yearn for the coming of the kingdom of justice and peace, who seek peace through justice”, or am I among those “advocates of imperial theology who seek peace through victory?”

Borg and Crossan refer to the three tenses of Christmas. Past, present and future – as retold by Charles Dickens in the Christmas Carol. Of the future tense they refer to three different understandings:
One is called “interventionist eschatology” – in which only God can bring about the new world.
The second is called “participatory eschatology” in which we are to participate with God in bringing about the world promised by Christmas.
The third involves letting go of eschatology altogether in which Christian hope is not about the transformation of this world.
Only the second is affirmed by Borg and Crossan – thankfully. “We who have seen the star and heard the angels sing are called to participate in the new birth and new world proclaimed by these stories.” They quote Augustine’s aphorism: “God without us will not; we without God cannot.”