On an ordinary night, amidst an ordinary empire-wide tax census ordered by Caesar Augustus, outside of an insignificant Palestinian hamlet, ordinary young men tending sheep were startled by a heavenly messenger announcing to them that the long-anticipated Messiah had arrived in the form of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. The shepherds answered this angel’s summons to find this child and worship him, and as they beheld that full Bethlehem cradle, even those unlettered young men knew that a promise long anticipated had been fulfilled. The aspiration of all Israel had, at long last, gained fruition. For centuries the Hebrew people had awaited the consummation of Isaiah’s famous promise that one day God would gift them with a child who warranted the titles of Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. They stubbornly held to the hope of this promise’s fulfillment even as Israel was overcome by Assyria and Judah was exiled to Babylon. They held to the hope of this promise, even as they witnessed the Greeks conquering all of Palestine, only to be succeeded by the domination of the Romans. The four weeks of waiting that we call Advent, our period of enforced, anticipatory patience when we await the birth of the Christ, faintly mirrors the irrepressible patience and unquenchable hope that all of Israel displayed in their centuries-old endurance of waiting for the cradle to become full.
That full Bethlehem cradle paved the way for a scene some three decades later, when grieving women marked by their faithfulness to this unlikely Messiah called Jesus made their heavy-hearted way through the morning mist, carrying spices with which they could minister to his crucified body. Reverberating in their ears were the searing words Jesus had uttered from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They, too, felt God-forsaken. Yet they came to the tomb in grief, only to leave in fear, awe, and confusion. The tomb was empty, save for divine messengers who questioned them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is risen, he is not here.” Soon these women and Jesus’ innermost circle of male disciples beheld the resurrected Christ, and soon thereafter the Spirit of this resurrected Christ descended upon them and transformed them into a missionary force that turned the world upside down, their movement evolving from an isolated Jewish spiritual movement into a world-wide faith.
The morning of the full cradle and the morning of the empty tomb were preludes to a scene less emblazoned in our spiritual imaginations, but equally important. Among the believers recruited by Christ to expand his movement was a former persecutor of the church, a spiritual genius who came to be known as Paul. Paul managed to plant the Christian faith in small congregations residing in population centers ranged around the Mediterranean Sea. Owing to his unique background as a fervent Jew brought up in a Gentile world, Paul proved uniquely able to bridge the seemingly irreconcilable chasm between the Hebrew and Greek cultures, articulating a faith that erased the categories into which his world had consigned people, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, sacred and profane, circumcised and uncircumcised. His version of Christianity was considered so revolutionary, so unorthodox – so blasphemous in the eyes of many – that his work was virulently attacked and his life ceaselessly threatened. But occasionally this spiritual visionary enjoyed sweet moments of triumph: he had collected a sizable offering from his predominantly Gentile churches that he intended to carry personally to the destitute Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem, the mother church that had birthed the Christian movement. And this ambition birthed yet another scene – Paul standing on a pier, surveying the horizon of an empty sea.
The scene was a port in the ancient Greek city of Miletus, located near a meandering river that was actually named Meander, in what is now modern Turkey. A group of Christian leaders, mostly from Ephesus, had gathered to say goodbye to Paul, who had announced to them that he was irrevocably turning his attention from the east to the west. He intended to sail to Jerusalem, deliver his gift to the church, then journey to Rome, before taking the Gospel to Spain, the far western frontier of the known European world. And yes, this scene was defined by tears, for Paul, with characteristic bluntness, had said to his friends, “You will see my face no more.” Amidst their tears, they conveyed Paul to his ship and watched him set sail on the open sea.
Sea travel in the ancient world was dangerous. So, too, was Christianity. Paul’s voyage to Jerusalem was relatively smooth, but his faith voyage into Jerusalem was tumultuous, resulting in his coming under the protective custody of the Roman government, custody that he would never leave, though that custody eventually turned from protective to lethal. Yet, ironically, that custody provided Paul conveyance to Rome, where he would write back to those very leaders who had wept with him before the open sea. Paul’s body would never reach Spain, but his Gospel would. His voyage didn’t go according to plan; but it ultimately advanced the purpose of God. Meanwhile, as Paul voyaged west, those Ephesian leaders returned east to their churches, where they shouldered the task of raising up a new generation of leaders, hewing their way forward in faith with fear and trembling. When Rome asserted that Caesar was Lord, these and other Christian leaders countered that Christ was Lord. An improbable narrative ensued: the Christian church challenged Rome, weathered Rome, converted Rome, conquered Rome, and ultimately witnessed Rome’s downfall, coping with that downfall by creatively and adaptively planting small dandelion outposts of faith in every nook and cranny of their world, only to see those dandelion outposts of faith then create more dandelion outposts of faith.
This is how Christianity has always navigated the open sea — with courage, creativity, resilience, resourcefulness, patience, and astounding adaptability. Whether it was the monastic movement started by St Francis in 13th century Italy, or the theological revolution started by Martin Luther in 16th century Germany, or the Great Awakening started by evangelists in 19th century America, Christianity has always forged new iterations of faith amidst ceaselessly changing and challenging circumstances. And the ships of faith that will navigate the open seas of opportunity in the post-pandemic twenty-first century will demonstrate the same virtues as of old: creativity, resourcefulness, resilience, courage, patience and the ceaseless adaptability of a revolutionary faith that does what Christianity has always done, eliminate the artificial categories erected by society intended to divide people from people. Above all, the ships of faith that will navigate the open sea of a new world of faith will trust in God’s ability to provide for them amidst tranquility and tempest.
The world has a name for the morning of the full cradle – we call it Christmas. The world has a name for the empty tomb – we call it Easter. The world has a name for the open sea that awaits the Christian faith – we call it the present. Sail forth, my friends, your sails open to the wind of God, proclaiming the message announced by that angel of old, “I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people, that unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”