Christmas 1B 2020

Divorced, Together: Nick Utphall reflects on the connections in the family of creation

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary 
Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year B (2020)

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Psalm 148

Galatians 4:4-7

Luke 2:22-40

 

For creation connections, it doesn’t get much clearer than the Psalm for the day, Psalm 148. I reprint it here just to refresh and maintain your contact with these globally, cosmically full words:

Hallelujah! Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise God in the heights.
Praise the LORD, all you angels;
sing praise, all you hosts of heaven.
Praise the LORD, sun and moon;
sing praise, all you shining stars.
Praise the LORD, heaven of heavens,
and you waters above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
who commanded, and they were created,
who made them stand fast forever and ever,
giving them a law that shall not pass away.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps;
fire and hail, snow and fog,
tempestuous wind, doing God's will;
mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars;
wild beasts and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds;
sovereigns of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the world;
young men and maidens,
old and young together.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
whose name only is exalted, whose splendor is over earth and heaven.
The LORD has raised up strength for the people and praise for all faithful servants,
the children of Israel, a people who are near the LORD. Hallelujah!

 

For a sense of “let all creation praise,” this Psalm voices it all! It covers the whole of creation, top to bottom. It reminds us that the creatures joining our praise are not just the tweets of sparrows or the submarine songs of whales, but that even creatures we’d consider inanimate (note: a word that means “without a spirit” or “without a soul”!) are still joining the hymns of praise and fully in relationship with God—the weather, the rocks, the solar system, and all!

 

It may be reading into it to a degree (anything is liable to be an interpretive framework, anyway), but I also appreciate that the Psalm isn’t promoting one standard order in creation. Plato instilled in us a sense of the “Great Chain of Being,” which was a hierarchy to rank creatures, including indicating a sense of proximity to God. So God was at the top of the staircase, and angels a step lower. That was followed by humans—generally with a presumption that males were higher than females (or a boss higher than the workers, a pastor higher than the congregation members). Depending on your preferences and debate abilities, maybe subsequently following were dolphins or dogs or chimpanzees or some other mammal. Eagles or chickens came next. Lower still were ensuing lizards and fish and those belly-crawling apple-offering snakes. Then maybe insects, which were at least higher than immobile trees. And those, in turn, must be higher and have more connection for the life and soul in them than water or asteroids or dirt.

 

But it seems to me that the Psalm doesn’t follow the descending staircase of that hierarchical value. When it does descend, it’s more a matter of sightline and observation, from looking up to the skies, and the clouds, and the hilltops, on down to those of us wandering about at ground level. It doesn’t see separated status; it sees community together. If this is the hymn of all creation, it strikes me that it’s less about the ego of a superstar lead singer who’s got backup singers and a band for accompaniment than it presents a choir in fugue, trading off the melody from section to section and voice to voice, supporting each other in mutual harmony and rhythm.

 

Of course, for all of that, it may well be that the Psalm gets little attention in your worshipping gathering this weekend. It may be a preference to make more room for the limited opportunities of Christmas carols. It may be that you don’t particularly feel you need the Psalm’s echo of the gardens springing up in Isaiah 61. After all, Isaiah is a direct echo of Isaiah’s own self, since we hear some of these words just two weeks ago on the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

 

But for the more Christmas-focused direction, you might still tie in Psalm 148 and notice the typical “star of Bethlehem” fits as one of those voices of praise. The same for the angels that arrived to proclaim glad tidings not just to shepherds but also sheep (though the Psalm has a limited translation of “cattle,” instead of the broader and probably more-intended “livestock” or domesticated animals). And we should be sure that those sheep almost certainly went to meet and praise the baby Jesus, because the shepherds weren’t just going to leave them in the fields at night!

 

Slightly more focused on our personal neighborhoods of creation (at least as we commonly conceive or attend to), and yet keeping within the song of community together, today’s readings might point us to the broad expanse of human family.

 

Where the Psalm spans classes and generations, we might also expand across geography and remember that Black Lives Matter and hear Indigenous voices, and notice those who have been historically oppressed.

 

Not to be too abstract or broad, we should also really notice depictions of the scope of our families—and quite quickly see that that’s not limited by biological family.

 

Of course, there is the newborn child and the parents. We remember them; they’re not done just because we’re through Advent and the feast of the Nativity. Indeed, most often we think of the expectancy and the arrival, the time of pregnancy and the night of birth. Today’s Gospel reading tells us a short time later of the new family, as the parents are trying to figure out the right things to do now that they have a baby.

 

And in this reading, as they are going about their business (perhaps in the details of the days like other parents of newborns navigating shopping aisles for diapers), they encounter two others who happen to be there in that same space. Two old people—at least we regularly presume that age about Simeon, with the note that death was being kept temporarily at bay, and for Anna we’re told that she had lived a long time. Simeon and Anna are strangers, but did not remain strange for long. These two who encounter the baby and the new parents resemble a familiar category in many of our churches: they are adoptive grandparents. They scoop the infant into their arms, congratulate the parents, cherish and celebrate the birth, claim its goodness for their own or relate dearly to it.


The family has expanded. It has crossed the generations. It is no longer just those who will live together in a household or can claim to be related to each other. There are new relatings and relationships. New bonds are formed. The kindness of the kin-dom finds more kin.

 

As we’re noticing all these relationships, the 2nd reading continues to expand our awareness. By a rare Pauline highlight of human birth, of a very real mother, Paul also points to other adoptive relationships. Not just those out of kindness as church family cares for each other, but of legal adoptions.

 

In this, we might begin by observing the identification of Jesus as the Son of God. He rightly and directly calls God “Father, Abba” (Galatians 4:6). On the one hand, that means that of those parents who took him to the temple, Jesus maybe would come to call Joseph something more like “stepfather,” one who legally took on care for Jesus at the same time he was taking Mary as his lawfully wedded wife. It became official that Jesus was Joseph’s adopted son.

 

And there’s a happy exchange, a blessed swap that occurs with that pair of relationships, according to Galatians. Jesus received a human adoptive father, and we who are under the law receive God as an adoptive parent. Through this expanding family, Jesus became our sibling and brings us to be lawfully connected to his Abba who is in some way legally obligated to the care of us!

 

(Note a clear reminder that caring for creation also includes laws and legal structures for how families are maintained and children cared for!)

 

For our lives being bound up into the family of God, I also want to observe one verse from the song of Simeon. In the phrase about “now you are dismissing your servant in peace” (2:29), the word for “dismissed” occurs in the New Testament almost only in the Gospels and Acts. At its most basic, the Greek word apoluo just means “release.” It is used when Jesus sends away crowds. It is for releasing from debt and for forgiveness. The biggest concentration for this verb is around the debate about releasing Jesus or Barabbas from arrest on Good Friday.

 

But one of the most common uses for the verb is as the word for divorce, because a husband was “dismissing” his wife or releasing her.

 

It’s playing with—or a play on—words, but let’s take Simeon, holding the baby Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s promise, with him then being “divorced” in peace.

 

Divorce is frequently a hard reality in our families, and usually characterized by animosity more than peace, and with forgiveness maybe almost more than could be hoped.

 

But here, the divorce is exactly about being incorporated into God’s family, being connected in these human relationships, including for all the peoples, all nations, the whole earth (Luke 2:31-32). The odd character of this divorce is that it only binds Simeon closer to the families of the earth, and simultaneously us with him as we sing his song and welcome this baby into our embrace and are welcomed into his circle.

 

Again, that is care for creation, not in some abstract sense, but in the very daily reality of our families—families that may be separated and have conflict in a normal holiday season, and also families that are separated and distanced through this year of pandemic. Even as we can’t care for that in the way we might like to, this sense assures us that God binds us closer together than we’ve been able to manage.

 

One final practical thought on how we attend to our human lives and relationships during this time:

 

The parents in the Gospel reading were following a common ritual after the birth of a baby. There are also markers for the other end of life, as Anna and Simeon find a rite of passage in their old age. Perhaps this commends to us a question of what we are doing about such transitions during times of quarantine. How can we be intentional about marking rituals and celebrating very real and regular moments of life, and not leaving them isolated? When we can’t gather babies into our arms while milling about the aisles of our religious gathering places, and as we are unable to join in visitations after a death and share a funeral service, how will we properly observe these very real and regular changes in our relationships in this human family?

 

Perhaps one answer could include something from the practice of the liturgical rhythm of the song of Simeon. Each of the three occasions of daily prayer takes a song from these early chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Morning prayer joins the song of Zechariah after the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:67-79). Evening prayer repeats the song of Mary, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). And the prayer at the close of the day (compline or “night prayer” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship) joins the chorus of Simeon’s song, which has also been used as the canticle after a communion service as the congregation is about to leave from each other and rejoin the rest of the world.

 

Just as a day may close, marking the finality and transition, with this song of divorce and of connection, maybe we echo it and reverberate with this reality where in our separations we are still bound together. In our song of fulfillment, completion, and transition, we join the hymn of all creation, even in our release and sending away still finding that we are ever more united in the relationships of all life in this grand family.

 

Nick Utphall

nick@theMCC.net