Sunday, December 18, 2011

Reflections on the texts for Advent IV - "Bread"

Read the Gospel - St. Mark 2:23-28

And Mary said... "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 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 powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."  (Mary's Song - The Magnificat - Luke 1:46-55)

We begin our reflection on this Gospel passage back in Genesis – Genesis 41.  The Pharaoh of Egypt has been having dreams – something about cows and corn – and these are troubling to him.  Now, the Pharaoh was a powerful man.  He had control over the lives of all of his subjects.  So, Joseph – the favorite son of Jacob – is brought before him in chains and told to interpret.  Famine is on the way, Joseph tells them.  And he adds further that you – the King - can ignore this warning or you can act on it in order to prepare.  Pharaoh knows that to ignore such a warning would be foolish.  Controlling food is one way of controlling the people, but if the food runs out and people begin to starve then power and control is in jeopardy.  Joseph is put in charge of preparing for the famine and it is averted – in Egypt.  But back in Canaan, where Jacob and his brothers are still living, things are not going so well.  Hunger is rampant.  When they finally come looking for food it is Joseph who is able to use access to bread as a tool to trick and trap the brothers.
Bread is central to the story of God’s involvement with human history.  From this story of Joseph to the story of God providing Manna in the wilderness and on beyond that, hunger and the access to bread is central.  And the point that the bible makes over and over and over again is this: the use of bread as a tool for maintaining power and control is condemned and is not God’s will.  Those who engage in this stand outside of the Kingdom of God and are roundly condemned.  See the holiness code of Leviticus (listed at the end of this article) or the prophecies of prophets such as Amos (5:6-15 for one instance).  Hunger is not God’s will and the use of hunger as a tool of power is contrary to the will of God.
Jump ahead now to 1st century Palestine, around the time of the birth of Jesus.  Herod the Great is the ruler and serves as the Roman puppet.  But Herod is brutal and rules with an iron hand.  And he knows how to maintain his power – keep people hungry!  This way they will be dependent.  Herod, also a great architect, builds massive grain storehouses that he maintains and keeps under careful guard.  His own private storehouses are filled to overflowing.  In fact 70 years later when his fortress-palace of Masada was taken over by the Zealots as a last stand against the Romans, there was enough grain left over to support the Zealots for years.  In other words, there was no way for the Romans to starve them out, they had to come up with another plan. (See below for a picture of the ruins of these grain storehouses).
Contrast that then with the text for today.  Jesus’ disciples are hungry and pick grain and eat it on the Sabbath, thus breaking the rules for the observance of the Sabbath day.  Jesus is confronted and defends his disciples pointing out that the needs of people – that is, feeding hungry people – is more important than strict observance of the rules of Sabbath observance.  “The Sabbath was created for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”  It is the same issue that comes up over and over again, which I have outlined above.  Using access to bread and hunger as a tool for power is against the will of God and is condemned.  And it doesn’t matter if it is religious or political power.  Hunger is against the will of the creator.
So. what does this have to do with Christmas?  A lot!  Christmas is the time when we celebrate the Incarnation: that God is born into this world in Jesus of Nazareth; and that in Jesus, the Realm of God is now made present.  That grain or bread is provided to the hungry and that they eat and are filled is a sign of the Realm of God come into our midst (see the Feeding miracles); but continuing and pervasive hunger is against God’s will and a sign that the Realm of God has not yet come in its fullness.  Hear the words of Mary’s song from Luke 1 – God cast the mighty down from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.  We may not like to think that God has preferences, but the Bible and the Gospel make it pretty clear that God is on the side of the victim and is against those who inflict suffering – and hunger is suffering!
The celebration of the Incarnation at Christmas is also a sign that those of us who are called to be Jesus’ disciples have some responsibility to provide bread and to do what we can to alleviate hunger. As Christians, as followers of Christ, we simply cannot pretend that hunger does not exist.  It does – in our world, our nation, our state and our community.  And we cannot ignore it.  As a part of our collective Christmas observance perhaps we need to include the hungry and those in need.  I realize that many people are very generous around Christmas time and that is wonderful.  But let us also remember that in a month there will still be children who are hungry; there will still be those who are in need.  I believe this text today is lifting up for us the importance of keeping this issue always in sight.     
There is a reason we use bread for Holy Communion.  The Body of Christ given for you – is not represented to us as fruit or cheese or anything else.  It is bread!  Bread is a sign of the Realm of God come into our midst; a sign that God is at work through us – God’s people – working against the reality of hungry; that God is at work opposing those who would use hunger as a tool for control and power.  As we take the bread, we are filled with God’s grace and sent forth from the table to love and serve and to work against the power of hunger.
Above are the ruins of the storehouses at Herod's fortress/palace of Masada.  Herod also built a palace called the Herodium outside of Bethlehem.  It had similar storehouses of grain.  When Mary and Joseph neared Bethlehem this structure would have been the first thing they saw.  It is hard to miss.  The contrast between the conditions in which Jesus was born and the Herodium are extreme. Jesus is born in a dark, dirty, smelly cave.  A place where there was probably little bread or any other things that would have made the birth easier.  Mary and Joseph were probably hungry and cold.  They were accompanied there only by a couple low-life shepherds.  But there within view of the cave stood the Herodium with its full storehouses of grain and its full cistern of water.  It seems to me that to look at contrast kind of puts Mary's words in a new light: that is, when Mary sings about casting down the mighty from their thrones and sending the rich away empty.  (BTW - I took this picture).
Another note: We have been using Pr. Adam Hamilton's Christmas study video this year called "The Journey."  In part 3 he talks about this issue and about hunger and points out, as I did above, that hunger and poverty is part of the story of the birth of Jesus.  His congregation in Leawood, KS does something really unique which I think is worth sharing.  Each year they designate their Christmas offering - the entire offering - to be given to alleviate hunger.  The offering is split between local agencies and those who work against famine in Africa.  Not only that but they encourage their members to consider giving to this offering an amount equal to whatever they spend on themselves for Christmas.  So if you are going to spend $500 buying presents, then he encourages you to give $500 to this offering towards alleviating hunger.  Perhaps it might cause some to reconsider the amount they spend on Christmas in the first place - which would be a good thing too.  As Pr. Hamilton notes in the video: "Christmas is not your birthday!"  Amen. 
The Link to this congregation's website: Christmas Offering at Resurrection

Scripture texts for meditation:
David eats the Bread of the Presence – I Samuel 21:1-6
Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream – Genesis 41
Amos 5:6-15
Holiness Code – Leviticus 23:22, 25:35, 37
The Feeding of the 5000 (and the 4000) – Mark 6:30-44, 8:1-10
One last thought.  Every year there is always hoopla and airtime taken up with denouncing the supposed "war on Christmas."  This "war" (which is sort of akin to the "Keep Christ in Christmas" movement) seems to focus on things like greeting folks with "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."  This is nonsense.  There is no "war on Christmas" - it is just media babble.  But there is a "war" (though I do not like to use that word) on the poor.  The latest statistics suggest that 1 in 2 Americans are now living below the poverty line.  The gap between the poor and the rich is widening more and more.  The very rich have enriched themselves at the expense of workers, farmers and hard-working Americans - and yet they pay less tax than the rest of us.  It is despicable.  One presidential candidate suggested that the Occupy Wall Street protesters need to get a job and a bath - except, there are no jobs to be had.  That is the point, which he doesn't seem to get.  Another candidate seems to think that since we have such a problem with obesity among the poor this means they have plenty to eat.  Which simply goes to show how terribly out of touch and misinformed he is. We have a responsibility.  Hunger is not acceptable.  Hunger in America is not acceptable.  As Christians we are called to work in every way we can against the powers that create hunger, that victimize the poor and that ravish our economy for their own benefit.  This Christmas, may all of us make reaching out to the poor and the hungry a part of our Christmas journey.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.


  1. Wow! And also Wow to the painting of Mary . Do you know who did that? I've never seen it before. Martha

  2. Martha, thanks for your note. All I can tell you is that the work is titled "The Madonna of the Magnificat."