They came from the edges of Jewish society, not the center. They came to see what the angels were talking about in that stable in Bethlehem, this long-awaited messiah dressed, not in full armor and crown, but swaddling clothes. Rags, not embroidered christening dresses or newborn onesies fresh from Amazon. Rags. Straw. Cattle. Sheepherders in their dirty workclothes, not townspeople. Gentile intellectual weirdos from afar, like, say, Berkeley or Cornell.
The way his coming has been remembered for us in the Book of Luke was intended to be upending, pointing to a specific instance where the last became first: the first to see the good news that God’s mercy and steadfast love is for all, not some. Not just for those born into the faith, the pious who religiously kept the commandments, but also for those whose place in society made them untouchable, pushed to the edges and beyond.
It’s such a simple message that it boggles the human mind. That’s why we have to revisit it every year. That’s also why we’ve converted the yearly celebration of this good news into a consumerist extravaganza, where we can push that good news out to the margins of our consciousnesses and dabble in it briefly, dropping coins into the Salvation Army buckets and thanking the bellringers for reminding us to think of those out in the cold. At the margins.
This past year, as we’ve struggled to come up from under the threat of the COVID-19 virus and its offspring, I’ve found myself reading the works of theologians from the margins. It started with Howard Thurman, that eloquent, steadfast Black interpreter of slave hymns, the poet who knew his people’s liberation from the oppressions of our white culture depended on reaching our ears. Still holding Thurman in one hand, I picked up a book by Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology from Peru. Now I’m immersed in the delicate threshing of a womanist theologian, Elaine Crawford, who is plucking the seeds of hope in Black women’s religious faith from the lint of cotton plantation slavery and sexual abuse, holding those seeds up to the light for our understanding.
Those people we have clumped under the category “women and minorities” (who are by far the vast majority of people in the world) are not the only ones sitting at the margins. I also immersed myself in Wes Jackson’s work, where he points to American rural people and the land itself as marginalized. I bathed in Anne Lamott’s delicious, self-effacing humor where she pointed to the hope she found in a small Black church in Marin, saving her from her alcoholism and the likelihood of dropping off the edge of the earth.
And then there’s Walter Brueggemann. “Look at the text,” he says, and then clears up the inherent ambiguities with enough history and linguistic comprehension to wipe away the clouds. It’s all there, he says, even in the Old Testament: God’s steadfast love and mercy are for all, even those at the margins. Especially those at the margins, which is why he brought the prophets up through the ranks to perform their excruciating roles. Jeremiah fought the empire with words, he says in Journey to the Common Good (2010), and we can, too. In Virus as a Summons to Faith (2020) he says we can use the clarity we’ve received about our overindulgences through supply line blockages and (now) more than 800,000 deaths to revamp our participation in this economy, to make it serve the common good rather than the 1%. A pastor to pastors, Brueggemann continues to serve us, including those at the margins, with his words.
I hear Christmas in his prayer found on page 60, “At the Edge of a New Normal.” He wrote:
“Our ‘normal ways’ are reassuring to us…. Only now our normal ways are exposed as constructs of privilege…. [Y]ou summon us to new futures made sober by the pandemic: You require us now to imagine, to risk, and be vulnerable as we watch the new normals emerge among us… ‘All things new’ is a huge stretch for us. But we know it is your good gift to us; with wistfulness, we receive it, we embrace it, and we give thanks to you. Amen.”
Come Friday night, there’s going to be some angels singing “fear not, a child is born, in a stable in Bethlehem.” When we in the center finally hear that as good news, the margins will melt and the new normal will be different, and better.
Trudy Wischemann is a student of margins who lives in Lindsay. You can send her your angel sightings c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.