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

Keep Dreaming

First Sunday after Christmas Day  |  Matthew 2:13-23

Three times in this passage we read that Joseph was warned in a dream. Just as before when Joseph learned that Mary was already pregnant and an angel appeared to guide him, it seems that Joseph’s angels appear to him only in dreams.Rainbow Wash 001

Dreams are that space where the walls we build around our innermost thoughts crack and come falling down. In our waking world we keep our fears at bay and we block out our hearts. In dreams, our fears disguise themselves and walk up to us, our desires walk out into the light to be seen. And in dreams, sometimes God speaks.

Maybe God is speaking to us all the time, and it is just that our dreams are the only place where our minds are quiet enough to hear.

The Magi came, strange wise men from the east. We know nearly nothing about them. It is likely Joseph knew nearly nothing. They came to see the child, left astonishing gifts, and departed never to be mentioned again. And after they leave, Joseph begins to dream.

He believes in the message of his dream enough to take his new family and hide them in Egypt, finding safety in what had been the land of Pharaoh. He has yet more dreams, and he believes in these enough to uproot his family again and to return to Nazareth.

Unlikely as it may seem, Joseph believed his dreams were the voice of God and acted on what he heard. Just like that.

A voice in our heads does not mean that God is speaking to us. Still, though the voice is just in our heads, it may be the voice of God. We only hear God when we stop to listen.

If we never act on our dreams, they remain only voices in our minds. When we act on our dreams, we meet God face to face.

Only A Dream

Fourth Sunday of Advent  |  Matthew 1:18-25

In which Joseph dreams about an angel…Snow Path 001

Most of us would claim, if pressed, that should an angel appear to us and tell us what the Lord wanted us to do, then we would certainly follow the Lord’s bidding. In the meantime, if we somehow miss the mark, it is that we are unclear on just what it is that we ought to do.

Joseph, according to the story, was visited by an angel, and the angel told Joseph exactly what was going on and what to do. And of course Joseph did it. After all, there is no great difficulty knowing what to do when an angel comes and tells you, and any sensible person would do just as the angel said.

Joseph had learned that Mary, his bride to be, was already pregnant. We don’t know how that conversation went, but we may imagine that it was a bit awkward. We do find Joseph to be a thoughtful and kind fellow: while he was certainly not foolish enough to marry such a woman, neither would he add to her disgrace. He determined to break off the engagement quietly.

One might consider for a moment that the story does not, strictly speaking, say that Joseph saw an angel. In fact, the story says that Joseph dreamed about seeing an angel, which is not quite the same thing. If in broad and waking daylight an angel appears and tells you things, full of light and sound and actual presence, that would be difficult to rationalize away. If you only dream about an angel, well then, one begins to wonder.

If Joseph were very sensible, knowing how the world works and where babies come from, then he would have awakened that morning, shook his head, and muttered to himself that it was only a dream. Then he would have carried out his plan to break his engagement with Mary, gone and married some other woman, and he and what’s-her-name could have made a good life together. That would have been the sensible thing to do.

Following his dream, listening to the words he thought an angel whispered while he was sleeping, that was foolish. Ask any sensible person who knew Joseph.

Oh, that is right: we don’t know any of the people who thought Joseph was foolish. Their names are lost, and their lives are not remembered.

We do remember Joseph. He was brave enough to act on his dream. He was kind enough, loving enough, faithful enough to consider that God was at work in the midst of what appeared to be an untenable situation.

In the end, Joseph simply chose to believe that God was speaking to him. When Joseph made his choice, he did not have lights and trumpets and scrolls handed to him. He did not even have a proper vision, some waking encounter with God that someone else could, at least, observe and confirm in some way, if only to tell Joseph that he did, in fact, sort of blank out there for a few minutes. No, all Joseph had to go on was a dream.

And so Joseph made the best choice he could, despite the fact that well meaning and otherwise intelligent people were telling him he was wrong. He made his choice without certainty, and as he watched his wife’s belly grow, he must occasionally have wondered whether he had done something foolish.

In the end, Joseph knew that he had made the right choice. Just when things were going so badly that his new wife was giving birth in a rented stable, not even in a decent house, and they were so far from home that their nearest family member was a donkey, suddenly there were angels aplenty that everyone could see. And there were wise men coming from who knew where bringing gifts, pretty good ones.

By then, it may be that Joseph did not need angels and wise men to tell him he had made the right choice. Long before Bethlehem, and even if the child were to have been quite normal and unremarkable, he may have looked at Mary and known that he would love her and the child regardless. He had made his choice with what good sense he had, the love in his heart, and faith that God is in our choices and our dreams.