A Child at Christmas

Mary and Joseph

Christmastide — First Sunday after Christmas | Luke 2:41-52

A Child at Christmas

Silver Snowflake on Christmas TreeWe wonder what Jesus was like as a child, but there is nearly nothing in the gospels to tell us. Perhaps there were stories passed around by the early church, lost tales of a young Jesus, stories we do not have. This passage in Luke’s Gospel is as close as we get.

The story, told in a sparse, almost journalistic style, tells of Jesus and his parents and presumably his siblings going to Jerusalem for the passover celebration. We know that Jesus did have brothers and sisters. In the third chapter of Mark, Mary and the brothers and sisters of Jesus hear about him teaching in public and come to do an intervention (an interesting story in itself.) In Matthew 13:55, the evangelist goes so far as to name the brothers of Jesus—James and Joseph and Simon and Judas, if you were wondering. Traditionally the church addresses the theological problem of God incarnate having brothers and sisters either by calling them cousins or by carefully making the claim that these are only half brothers and sisters, sharing a mother but not a father. The gospels themselves are not so particular. Whatever way we choose to understand the theological assertion that Jesus is God become human through the miracle of being born to Mary, the rest of the family still existed. If you are part of a mixed family, you might reflect that you have something in common with Jesus.

It makes little sense to think Joseph would bring his wife and one child to the Passover celebrations but leave the rest of the family at home. In for a penny, in for a pound, most likely, particularly when one considers the apparent close connections of extended family and friends who make up the traveling party—if the younger children were left in Nazareth, who stayed with them? We don’t know enough to be sure either way. Most likely there were at least some elderly relatives or friends who did not want to make the trip, and they would have looked after the younger kids, but how young were these siblings? If Jesus was twelve, surely at least some of the other children were old enough to travel? Don’t forget, this is Mary. She perched on a donkey and rode to Bethlehem when her water was about to break.

Star on Christmas TreeIf Joseph and Mary didn’t realize Jesus was missing for a whole day’s journey, there must have been a good number of other children, friends and family around them. Imagine the panic when they realize that Jesus is lost. Jerusalem was a large city to them, full of more perils than tiny Nazareth. It was full of devout Jews to be sure, but there were plenty of less devout ones, Romans, foreign traders, all kinds of people. Luke tells us that after three days Joseph and Mary found Jesus in the Temple. We can’t quite tell whether this is three days total or three days plus that first day, but three or four days is a long time when you cannot find your child.

By the way, perhaps we are meant to reflect on those three days. It is an intentional detail—as Jesus as a child is realizing his calling, he goes missing for three days. At the end of it all, when Jesus the man has followed the path he perceives God prepared for him, there are those other three days between dying and living.

Luke gives us a hint of the mix of relief and anger expressed at the reunion, with Mary berating her son for treating them in such a fashion but immediately taking him home. There’s an interesting question—did Jesus do wrong by staying behind at the Temple? Did God misbehave?

Let’s leave that one alone. We might not like where it goes.

We do learn something about Jesus and the way he was raised. For one thing, Mary and Joseph clearly did not hover. They gave their children some freedom. The kids were able to move among their network of extended family and friends without being constantly watched.

Jesus also had an early inclination to theology. That should not surprise anyone. God studying theology is introspective but natural.

We might wonder about that scene at the Temple. When his parents found him, Jesus was “…sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

Yes, yes, we say, but then he was God incarnate. What else would we expect?

I have to wonder whether Jesus amazed them because he was God among them or simply because he was a child among them. He was young enough not to have been pressed into the mold of ordinary thought. Twelve is just the right age to start wrestling with the ideas we are handed about God and morality: we are emerging from childhood and yet we retain the simple and frank vision of a child.

They were astonished, we read, but why? Were they astonished because of where they found him? Was it because of his poise or his grasp of theology? Was it because he had left them and, knowing they would be frantic to find him, he had not gone in search of them but instead sat enjoying himself in the Temple?

Did those men sitting and talking with Jesus even realize that his parents were searching for him? Or were they surprised when Mary showed up and began scolding the boy? And why does Mary do all the talking? What is going through Joseph’s mind when the boy says that he must be in his father’s house?

Do his parents really know who he is? Does any parent realize what is really going on in a child’s mind? Of course, if Christianity has it right, Jesus is a special case.

In this Christmastide season, the twelve days of Christmas, it may do us good to follow Jesus’ example—do a runner, get lost for a bit, and start asking some questions, even if there is nobody offering better answers than we already had.

The rest of the year presses us into the mold of expectations and normality. Let’s not accept what the world tells us about God and our place in the universe: the world is old and jaded, set in its ways. Instead, let’s open up more than packages. Let’s be a child at Christmas.

Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Mary and Joseph

Leaping Toward Christmas

Fourth Sunday in Advent | Luke 1:39-55

Leaping Toward Christmas

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

A baby kicks in the womb. That is all that is happening in the story, really, just an ordinary thing. But it is the kind of small ordinary event to which we attribute meaning, like a sign or some superstitious belief from old wives’ tales. A broom falls. A palm itches. A child kicks in the womb.

That is all it is.

Painting of the Visitation
Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Louvre, Paris.

In that simple kick, two women know portents of the future. They hear angels greeting them. They believe that the first Christmas is coming, before there is such a thing as Christmas. And they give praise to a God whom they have never seen, comfort one another in their faith that all will be well, simply because of a child’s restless dream in the warm darkness of his mother’s womb.

Two expectant mothers, one of them unwed, sit at the beginning of a new creation story. God is bringing about a new thing, and it starts in these two women, who are not seen by anyone in their world as persons of greatness or importance.

There is a powerful dichotomy at work.

“My soul magnifies the Lord…” So begins the famous praise offered by Mary in Luke’s Gospel. The tension is plain in the text. Far from being a simple expression of faith or praise, Mary’s words distill the message of the prophets. Her prophetic word to her world, and to ours, is that the proud shall be scattered, those who rule shall be torn from their thrones, and the rich shall go hungry. It is the gospel told as prophecy and as challenge—God shall favor the humble, empower the weak, feed the hungry. True power is not in governments or bank vaults or armies, the prophets are saying. True power, Mary tells us, is the ability to create life, not destroy it. And the face of God is seen on every newborn child.

People speak of Mary’s humility, her willingness to submit to what she perceived as the will of God, and they are right to do so. We should also list her among the prophets, like Elijah and Isaiah. In her grace and her humility, Mary gave us words of power and of warning.

In this Advent season, we would do well to look for the dichotomy of the prophets, this tension Mary proclaims at the coming of the first Christmas. If we think ourselves clever, or powerful, or rich and well fed, Mary is warning us.

Theotokos, they called her, God-bearer, but that was many years afterward, when enough time and enough words had passed to help the early Church see what had happened. When the Christ child was born and God in that moment began the making of a new creation, Mary was still in a stable, with straw for her bed, animals for her companions. In Bethlehem, she was a stranger who had travelled from far away. She was of low estate, no one of power, no one of wealth. And most blessed was she among us all.

MaryBabySnowCP

The Gospel of Doing

Third Sunday of Advent  |  Luke 3:7-18

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

The Gospel of Doing | Luke 3:7-17

John the Baptist was the sort of man who would get extra attention at airport security. Wild, bearded, long haired, wearing odd clothes—he showed every sign of being outside mainstream society.

Of course, he was outside the mainstream. While Jesus would later walk the streets of the cities and sit to teach in the synagogues, even venturing into the Temple itself, John left the company of society and went out into the wilderness to the edge of his civilization. It was as though he knew someone was coming, someone who would come from a world away.

There, in the wild places near the murmur of the river, John began to catch the attention of anyone who passed, and he began to preach. What he said, or maybe how he said it, or maybe simply the appearance of this man who happened (that is the word the gospel accounts use—John happened) out there in the wilderness somehow drew people to him. They left their towns and villages, left their well trodden paths and streets, and they made their way into the wild places to see this wild man.

LightOnWater

”What shall we do?” That was the question the crowds put to him when they found him.

His answers were remarkably simple. Share your food with the hungry. Share your clothes with the poor. Do not take what is not yours. John taught a practical theology.

Only his last answer was abstract. Be content, he told them, an injunction not so simple as the others. How should one be content? He didn’t give out instructions.

Perhaps we are content when we choose to be.

That is the implication behind John’s mandate. It is only reasonable to tell us to be content if it is possible for us to comply. We must be able to choose it.

Contentment, then, is not a feeling to be desired—that is a result, not a cause. Contentment must have more to do with how we see the world, what we choose to do in the world, or apart from it.

John the Baptist never told anyone to believe certain tenets. The closest thing to dogma he taught was the need to change. The people who came already knowing how to pass a theology exam, those people he called snakes and vipers. It was not an endorsement of mainstream religion.

He did not preach what people should believe. He preached what they should do. Rather than admonishing people to be right, he urged them to do right. Perhaps he was confident that faith would follow action, or perhaps he saw no difference between the two.

John preached a gospel of expectation and a gospel of doing. He told people to give. He told them to share. He didn’t tell them to love one another, but to act as though they did. He told them to live like Jesus was going to live.

He’s coming, John told them. Make way. Watch and learn, then go and do.

Treeline

Anchored in Christmas

Second Sunday of Advent | Luke 3:1-6

Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary

Anchored in Christmas

The passage from Luke begins by establishing the date, or at least that is what it appears to do. The author grounds what is to follow, anchors it in history, by listing the names and years of rulers—the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, during the rule of Herod Antipas and of Herod Philip and of the otherwise unknown Lysanias of Abilene, during the priesthood of Annas and of Caiaphas.

In that time, according to Gospel of Luke, the word of God came to John the Baptist. Literally, we are told that the word of God “happened” to John, just as the word of the Lord always happens to prophets.

So why start talking about John the Baptist? Why does Luke go to so much trouble to establish the historical setting of John’s ministry? After all, it’s the beginning of the story of Jesus. Why go to such trouble to anchor John in history instead?

It is not merely about establishing a date for the events. A date would be just a fact. The setting — the Gospel claims that these things happened in a real world, to real people, not in any way that different from ourselves — is more than history or biography. It is theology. It tells us something about God.

The story of Jesus is astonishing. The Christian claim that he was God become human is nearly unbelievable, particularly to us closed minded modern folk—first one must accept the reality of God, and then one must also accept that this God could and would become incarnate in human form. Of course, the notion was not new to the ancient world. The Romans, Greeks, Persians, and many other people before them told stories of gods who walked on the earth as human beings. There were plenty of tales of the children of gods. One might even say that those stories prepared the way for people to accept the possibility of a man who was also God.

RiverRocks_DrybrushIf we, as Christians everywhere claim, accept the idea that God was doing something new, something never seen before or since, in the life and ministry of Jesus, we are also tempted to think of the Jesus story as an event outside of time, more akin to a meteor falling from space than to anything growing naturally on the earth.

Luke goes out of the way to make precisely the opposite claim. This is no act of God that comes falling like lightning from the sky. This is grounded. This is God growing the miracle of incarnation in a real world, in a particular moment of human history, surrounded by the joys and troubles of humanity.

In a real time and a real place, God called John. In that time and place, God happened to John. In that real world, John set about preparing a way, making a straight path to the minds and hearts of people who hoped for more of their lives than work and taxes. John got their attention, even as he prepared the way for someone else to eclipse him.

In responding to God, John the Baptist was covered in the dust of the wilderness, surrounded by anxious people, bound by government laws and religious rules.

It was not an ideal situation. It was real.

We can take comfort in the historical grounding of John’s call. If John could engage with the experience of God in such a place and time, then the same can be true for us in ours.

We do not need a perfect world in order to engage with God. We do not need great opportunities, perfect connections. We do not need to be perfect people. Look at John. According to the other gospels, John the Baptist roamed the wilderness, ate locusts, dressed in camel hair—he was not what we might today call well adjusted. He was not normal, not even by first century standards.

We begin great and wonderful things where we are, as we are. That is an important part of the good news, the gospel story.

Advent is about making a way, not about waiting for things to be perfect. The season of Advent is about straightening the paths we have, starting from here and now.

Christmas, like heaven, may seem to have more to do with one day and some day and the promised land, but it is anchored in the present. Our present wilderness.

Advent begins wherever we are.