Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Finding the Christmas Tree in a Sycamore

If anyone was sleeping during meditation this morning, Sister Mary A. woke them up with her heart-rendingly desperate cry for help. Her panic was not at something particularly life-threatening. The poor soul felt stranded at the top of the five steps leading down to chapel: someone had left the electric wheelchair lift at the bottom, and Sister forgot about the gentle bell that would summon a helper without raising the collective heartrate. We have a few sisters like her, whose weaknesses can be a bit distracting, if not unsettling. 

But Christmas is a mystery of weakness. We won't see God as Emmanuel, God-with-us, if we don't get used to the idea of weakness; if we don't come to see ourselves as weak and needy.

Yesterday I came across some meditation notes from November, when the day's Gospel was the encounter of Jesus with Zaccheus, the man in the sycamore tree. In some unexpected ways, I “heard” that Gospel today as a Christmas story. This is what I mean:

In the Incarnation, and on that road through Jericho, Jesus moved toward those polite society shrinks from, the people who are too needy, clingy, erratic, demanding, unpredictable, intrusive. I tend to move quite rapidly in the opposite direction of people who might challenge me with their unexpected helplessness or their violation of societal expectations. I don't want to be put on the spot. Jesus doesn't mind at all. In the Incarnation, Jesus “came to seek and save what was lost.” He did not protect himself from those he had come for: he identified with them.,0.7909,0.35
Zaccheus may not have known this at first. Of course, he was “looking to see Jesus” (we are made for that), but he hid himself in the generous leaves of the sycamore tree so as not to impose his need on Jesus, or expose himself to the rejection of his townspeople. After all, he was a tax collector, “a sinner,” a member of an undeserving class, unwelcome wherever people gathered. It was a weird, symbiotic relationship: Zaccheus profiting from his role as local sinner to extort as much as he could from his tax collector's post, while his fellow citizens could feel vindicated in their resentment and secure in their civic virtue every time they looked at him.

Naturally, then, he was the one Jesus called out to, just as at the Nativity it was the misfit shepherds (lazy, thieving types who were dismissed as outside the Law, since their profession prevented them from observing all the religious prescriptions) and the pagan scholars (pagans!) who received celestial invitations to the manger. God comes to all, but only the weak or excluded seem to recognize him.

It can be so easy to get the Gospel wrong; to think it is for “good people,” or that Jesus' (or the Pope's) presence and nearness is a reward for getting it all right. Today's moralism seems to know only reward or punishment, and sees “fraternizing with the undeserving” as a dismissal of wrongdoing rather than an invitation to a new life. Whether we identify more with the “losers” or with the “in crowd,” we can miss the invitation to go out on a limb and receive the Kingdom of God like a little child if we want it to only confirm us in our way of thinking and keep our hierarchies of power or values in place.

Most of us won't hear these readings on Christmas Day, so why not read them as part of your Christmas preparation? "He came unto his own." He comes to us. What comes next?

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