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Christmas: Birth of a New Narrative

The sacred myth of Christmas enchants us into life, birthing us as children of God.  The gospel story of the conception and birth of Jesus comes alive for us again, in our own transformation from the mundane to the divine.  The story is about us.  It is about you and me.  It is about what it is like for us to pass through the birth canal from the sleep of conventional consciousness into glorious awakening to Ultimate Reality:  “…born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

In Spanish, the words for birth are “dar la luz” – to give the light.  The implication is that the mother brings the baby out of the darkness of the womb and into the light.  The gospel of John opens with mystical imagery:  “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  At Christmas, the baby is the light.  Light itself is being born.  A new kind of vision, a new kind of seeing, is coming into the world.

A vision expressed with stunning eloquence this very week, in Moscow, in a courtroom where Yegor Zhukov, a 21 year old university student, was on trial for “extremism”.  His supposed crime?  Posting youtube videos denouncing Vladimir Putin.  His run for Moscow City Council caught the attention of the authorities.  He was sentenced to three years probation conditional on him refraining from posting anything on social media.  Here is an excerpt from his closing speech in the courtroom:

“The Russian state claims to be the world’s last protector of traditional values. We are told that the state devotes a lot of resources to protecting the institution of the family, and to patriotism. We are also told that the most important traditional value is the Christian faith. Your Honor, I think this may actually be a good thing. The Christian ethic includes two values that I consider central for myself. First, responsibility. Christianity is based on the story of a person who dared to take up the burden of the world. It’s the story of a person who accepted responsibility in the greatest possible sense of that word. In essence, the central concept of the Christian religion is the concept of individual responsibility.

“The second value is love. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is the most important sentence of the Christian faith. Love is trust, empathy, humanity, mutual aid, and care. A society built on such love is a strong society—probably the strongest of all possible societies.

“To understand why I’ve done what I’ve done, all you have to do is look at how the Russian state, which proudly claims to be a defender of these values, does in reality. Before we talk about responsibility, we have to consider what the ethics of a responsible person is. What are the words that a responsible individual repeats to himself throughout his life? I think these words are, ‘Remember that your path will be difficult, at times unbearably so. All your loved ones will die. All your plans will go awry. You will be betrayed and abandoned. And you cannot escape death. Life is suffering. Accept it. But once you accept it, once you accept the inevitability of suffering, you must still accept your cross and follow your dream, because otherwise things will only get worse. Be an example, be someone on whom others can depend. Do not obey despots, fight for the freedom of body and soul, and build a country in which your children can be happy.’

“Is this really what we are taught? Is this really the ethics that children absorb at school? Are these the kinds of heroes we honor? No. Our society, as currently constituted, suppresses any possibility of human development. [Fewer than] ten percent of Russians possess ninety per cent of the country’s wealth. Some of these wealthy individuals are, of course, perfectly decent citizens, but most of this wealth is accumulated not through honest labor that benefits humanity but, plainly, through corruption….

“I really want to see these two qualities—responsibility and love—in my fellow-citizens. Responsibility for one’s self, for one’s neighbors, for one’s country. This wish of mine, your honor, is another reason why I could not have called for violence. Violence breeds impunity, which breeds irresponsibility. By the same token, violence does not bear love. Still, despite all obstacles, I have no doubt that my wish will come true. I am looking ahead, beyond the horizon of years, and I see a Russia full of responsible, loving people. It will be a truly happy place. I want everyone to imagine Russia like this. And I hope this image can lead you in your work, as it has led me in mine….

“In conclusion, I would like to state that if the court decides that these words are spoken by a truly dangerous criminal, the next few years of my life will be marked by deprivation and adversity. But I look at the people [who have been jailed in the latest wave of activist arrests] and I see smiles on their faces. Two people I met briefly during pretrial detention, Lyosha Minyaylo and Danya Konon, never complained. I will try to follow their example. I will endeavor to take joy in having this chance—the chance to be tested in the name of values I hold dear. In the end, Your Honor, the more frightening my future, the broader the smile with which I look at it. Thank you.”

Now those are words of higher consciousness piercing through the darkness of autocracy.  Words of a very young man wise far beyond his years, expressing a profound Christian theology.  And you can switch out the word Russia with the word America and most of it rings just as true.  Pray God that more young people in America will speak out with the clarity of moral vision that Yegor Zhukov dared to express in a Russian kangaroo court, so that the fate that has befallen Russia does not befall our country as well – a fate that threatens us more acutely with each passing day.

In a dark time in Israel, occupied by the Roman Empire, with the people seething in anger and despair, a baby was born.  And through him, a new narrative came to light.   Jesus gave birth to a new story for the people of Israel.  A new way to take the same realities that surrounded them, and give them a radically fresh and positive interpretation.   A kingdom of love had arrived, co-existing with the kingdom of oppression that surrounded them.  By seeing the light of compassion, and acting on it, that kingdom of love would become more and more manifest among them, and overcome the corruption and violence that confronted them every day.

Yegor Zhukov’s speech laid out the grim reality of Russia today, and at the same time offered a fresh and positive narrative for its future.  He didn’t blow sunshine at his audience.  His positive vision is rooted in clarity about the painful facts of his country’s situation.  He gave the light to another vision of his country, where people will take on the true Christian virtues of responsibility and love.

What story do you tell yourself and others, about yourself?  What narrative have you accepted about your life?  Does this narrative serve your soul?  Ponder this:  there are an infinite number of stories you could tell about the same facts of your life.  Innumerable ways you could string together the same realities, but each with significantly different implications and consequences.  One version of your story can keep you stuck in negativity and helplessness.  Another version, based on the same facts, can liberate you into creativity and hopefulness.  Christmas is just this:  the birth of a new narrative for the human condition – one that takes our same nitty-gritty realities and strings them together into a story that impels us toward compassion and hope and faith.

So much of my work as a church pastor, as a community organizer, and as a campus pastor has been just this:  serving people as a midwife in the birth of new narratives for their lives.   Narratives that serve their souls.  Narratives that give hope and purpose to their lives, leaving behind plot-lines of despair and regret and anger.

A new story for your life is on its way.  Growing invisibly within you.  Gestating.  It’s on its way in the belly of a virgin riding a donkey toward Bethlehem.  It’s knocking at your door, hoping for a welcome.  Get ready!  Out with the old, stale, dull, negative story of your life.  In with one based on the same facts, but suffused with awe and wonder and joy and hope.  One that will birth you not by the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God…. who is love.

Follow me on twitter: @jtburkloSee the GUIDE to my articles and books

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