MANY YEARS AGO I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO WALK THE RIDGE ROAD ABOVE SOME PALESTINIAN VILLAGES. WHAT’S LEFT OF THE ACTUAL RIDGE ROAD NORTH OF JERUSALEM THAT JESUS WOULD HAVE WALKED.  JUST A PATH WIDE ENOUGH FOR TWO DONKEYS TO PASS GOING DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS.  AND ALONG THE CREST IN A FEW PLACES ARE THESE PATCHES OF WHITISH, BEDROCK POLISHED BY THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF USE AND STORMS FROM THE DESERT AND SEA.

VILLAGE FARMING IN THAT PART OF THE WORLD IS DRY LAND FARMING.  THEY DON’T IRRIGATE.  IRRIGATION WORKS FOR ABOUT 30 YEARS, BUT LIKE DOWN IN EL CENTRO, ALL THAT WATER LEACHES UP SO MUCH UNDERGROUND SALT THAT THE LAND IS DESTROYED.  BUT IN THESE VILLAGE FIELDS – THE ONES THE PALESTINIANS HAVE MANAGED TO HOLD ONTO – THERE ARE SMALL GROUPS OF OLIVE AND APPLE AND APRICOT TREES, AND IN BETWEEN THE TREES AND ON ANY OPEN ROLLING PLACES, THERE ARE THE SMALL FIELDS WHERE THEY STILL GROW WHEAT AND BARLEY BY HAND, MUCH AS THEY ALWAYS HAVE.

AFTER GRAIN IS HARVESTED IT HAS TO BE THRESHED, THE HEADS OF WHEAT AND BARLEY HAVE TO BE BROKEN OFF THE STALKS, AND THEN THE LITTLE HEADS OF GRAIN, LIKE YOU CAN SEE IN THE BINS OF SOME OF OUR BIGGER STORES, THE GRAINS HAVE TO HAVE THE OUTER HULLS REMOVED.  THE ENIRE PROCESS IS CALLED THRESHING.    THE GRAIN HAS TO BE THRESHED. THAT’S WHERE THESE PATCHES OF POLISHED WHITE ROCK I JUST MENTIONED COME IN.  THAT’S WHERE THE THRESHING IS DONE.  THE VILLAGE THRESHING FLOOR.  I WANT TO TALK ABOUT THIS TODAY BECAUSE JOHN THE BAPTIST USED THE VERY COMMON IMAGE OF THRESHING TO DESCRIBE JESUS.  AND BACK THEN EVERYONE KNEW IT BECAUSE EVERYONE – EVERY WOMAN – DID IT. 

     I’VE BEEN LUCKY ENOUGH TO BE IN A PALESTINIAN VILLAGE DURING THE GRAIN HARVEST. SO LET ME DESCRIBE IT.  RIPE GRAIN IS CUT BY HAND WITH A SICKLE, AND THE STALKS WITH THE HEADS OF GRAIN ARE BROUGHT UP TO THE THRESHING FLOOR.  FIRST, THE LITTLE HEADS OF BARLEY AND WHEAT HAVE TO BE REMOVED FROM THE STEMS.  SO THEY USE A TOOL CALLED A FLAIL.  A FLAIL IS A CLUB WITH TWO PARTS, A LONG HANDLE YOU HOLD TO AN UPPER, MUCH THICKER. SHORTER CLUB BY A LEATHER STRAP.  AND YOU RAISE THE FLAIL UP, AND BRING IT DOWN, AND THE END BEATS THE GRAIN.  USE IT ON A PERSON, YOU’D KILL HIM.

     BUT THE GRAINS STILL HAVE THEIR OUTER HULLS ON THEM AND THEY HAVE TO BE GROUND OFF.  COUPLE OF WAYS TO DO THIS.  SO THEY HAVE ANIMALS – OXEN OR DONKEYS – DRAG SLEDGES FIXED WITH STONES ON THE BOTTON  BACK AND FORTH AND BACK AND FORTH OVER THE GRAINS ON THE SMOOTH POLISHED ROCK UNTIL THESE STONES AND THE ANIMALS HOOVES GRIND THE GRAINS OFF THE STRAW.  I’VE SEEN THE SLEDGES LYING THERE, NOT THE ACTUAL WORK. BUT I SUPPOSE THE ANIMALS THEMSELVES ARE MARCHED BACK AND FORTH.

     AND THEN THE WOMEN PUT THE GRAIN ON WHAT LOOKS LIKE A BIG, FLAT, STRAINER AND TOSS THEM WAY UP, OVER AND OVER, UP AND UP IN THE AIR – IT’S A REAL ART.  THE PAPER-THIN OUTER SHELLS – I THINK THAT’S WHAT WE CALL CHAFF – BLOWS AWAY, AND THE HEAVY GRAIN FALLS RIGHT BACK DOWN ONTO THE ROUND STRAINER. WHICH I’M SURE HAS A REAL NAME.  

BUT THEM, WHEN THEY ARE DONE WITH ONE BATCH,  THEY LIGHT BUNDLES OF STRAW ON FIRE, AND DRAG THEM OVER THE THRESHING FLOOR TO BURN UP ANYTHING LEFT AND PURIFY THE FLOOR, AND GO ON TO THE NEXT BATCH.          THIS IS THE THAT JOHN THE BAPTIST IN THIS GOSPEL USED TO DESCRIBE THE MESSIAH.  WHEN MESIAH COMES HE WILL BEAT YOU WITH A FLAIL, AND GRIND YOU UNDER STONES AND OXEN HOOVES, AND SEPARATE THE GOOD FROM THE BAD, AND BURN YOU WITH FIRE, AND PURIFY YOU.  TALK ABOUT SCARING THE BEJEEBERS OUT OF PEOPLE. NO WONDER THEY CAME OUT TO BE BAPTIZED IN THE JORDAN.

     BUT THEN THE EXTRAORDINARY THING.  WHEN JESUS BEGAN PREACHING THERE WAS NONE OF THIS TALK OF VENGANCE AND FIRE.  JOHN THE BAPTIST WAS TOLD WHAT JESUS SAID.  THE GREATEST OF THE PROPHETS HAD SECOND THOUGHTS. WHERE WAS THE FIRE? WHERE WAS THE POWER AND THE VENGEANCE?   IT WASN’T THERE.  BY THEN HE HAD BEEN IMPRISONED BY HEROD FOR TALKING AGAINST HEROD’S WIFE – THE DAUGHTER OF SALOME. SO FROM PRISON HE SENT HIS FOLLOWERS TO ASK JESUS.  ARE YOU “HE WHO IS TO COME” OR SHOULD WE LOOK FOR ANOTHER.

     AND IT IS AT THAT POINT THAT JESUS TELLS JOHN’S FOLLOWERS.  “TELL JOHN THAT THE BLIND SEE, THE LAME WALK, THE SICK ARE CURED, AND THE POOR HAVE THE GOOD NEWS PREACHED TO THEM.”  A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF A MESSIAH FROM WHAT JOHN EXPECTED. 

IN OUR DRAMATIZATION OF THE RECORDED BIRTH OF JESUS.  GOD IS PRESENTED AS A GOD OF OUTSIDERS; OF SECOND CHANCES; OF LETTING GO AND STARTING AGAIN. 

THE CHRISTMAS STORY IS ABOUT BIRTH.  BUT OUR ANNUAL DRAMATIZING OF IT IN THE LITURGY IS MORE.  IT IS ABOUT REBIRTH. OUR ANNUAL REDRAMATIZING OF THE LIFE AND TEACHINGS OF JESUS – OUR CHRISTMAS LITURGY – IS A DRAMATIC FORUM INVITING US TO TAKE PART IN IT BY RECOGNIZING OUR OWN NEEDS FOR RESTARTING, TO TAKE CHARGE OF OR OWN LIVES ONCE AGAIN, WITH THE HOPE AND BELIEF THAT WE DO HAVE A FUTURE.  THAT THERE IS A FUTURE HERE, EVEN FOR US.