Many Americans participate in a congregation close to their homes – a neighborhood church, as it’s often called.
For others, though, the decision is more selective and may require travel to gather for worship, communal action, and other events.
Frequently, these members define their personal identity strongly by these religious circles – I certainly do as a Quaker. Still others, like Jews or Greeks, find their identity further enhanced by the use of a foreign language, such as Hebrew or Greek, in worship and possibly also at home, as well as unique holidays on dates the wider public doesn’t celebrate.
I am fascinated by the intensity of this identification for some people or its relative weakness in others. I rarely hear individuals define themselves as, say, Methodist or Presbyterian or even Baptist with the sense of intense core identity I hear in Quaker, Greek, Mennonite, or even “nonobservant Jew.”
Think about the Amish, with their German dialect accompanied by distinctive dress and horse-and-carriage transportation. Or Ultra-Orthodox Jews who also observe the dress restrictions and likely add Yiddish to the mix.
Let’s assume we’ll find similar patterns in new ethnic populations appearing in the nation – Islam, especially. Anyone else feeling some empathy?
What’s your experience of religion and personal identity?
Among other things, the birth of Jesus is riddled with scandal. (As is his execution.) Here are 10 things a close reading of the story in Matthew and Luke will reveal:
His ancestors include a prostitute (Rahab, Joshua 2 and 6) and a woman from a forbidden ethnic group, the Moabite Ruth. Both, by the way, defy social conventions of both their origins and the people they join.
The deity-human intercourse, so common in the cultures of surrounding mythologies, involves a commoner rather than royalty or high social position.
Archangels – messengers of God – don’t appear to just anyone. And to appear to a woman, rather than a male prophet or priest, can be seen as outrageous. In fact, her encounter with Gabriel comes off much better than the one her cousin Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, has in the depths of the Holy of Holies in the Temple. (There Gabriel strikes him speechless until their own child’s birth nine months later – or 10, by the Jewish calendar.)
Mary is more independent than she’s typically depicted. Meek? I’d say militant. According to law, she should have been stoned to death but instead sings praises to, or even with, the Holy One. Think of it as a love song. And then she flees to her cousin Elizabeth for refuge. (Well, Zechariah really can’t complain or report her now, can he?)
What do we make of Joseph? He’s a surprisingly elusive character in the story. I’m among those who assume he’s much older than Mary. (A young man would have been outraged by seeming betrayal, but Joseph, no matter his pain, is shown to be even tender toward her condition when he decides to divorce quietly after the birth.) But in his own way he, too, is rejecting social norms and expectations and risks being cast out from his circles. And, in contrast to his betrothed, the angel that appears to him has no name.
Mary gives birth to more children, the siblings of Jesus. There are his James, Jude, and Simon … (“Joses” is more likely to be Jesus himself than the Joseph sometimes put forward) and, by tradition, sisters Joanna and Salome, possibly among the named women who later go to the tomb.
The stable was a much more private and comfortable place to give birth than what would have passed for an inn.
If shepherds were out with their flocks, the birth would have been in springtime, not the beginning of winter.
The star is not in the east. Rather, the three magi – or astrologers – come from the east, where they saw a heavenly light, likely a comet or bright planet, as a sign.
A much more ominous, cosmological version of the Nativity is told in Revelation 12. If you’re overloaded with the happy-happy Christmas hoopla, you might look at this as a tonic.
Whatever your faith, here’s wishing you a time of love, joy, and deep refreshment as we gather among family and friends in the shortest days of the year.