One Thing

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vermeer, c.1655

Luke 10:38-42 | Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

One Thing

Luke tells us a story about the two sisters, Martha and Mary. We think of the sisters of Lazarus from John’s Gospel, but a second look at Luke’s story shows us that there is no mention here of Lazarus, nor of Bethany, where John tells us they lived.

Martha and Mary by Caravaggio, c.1598
Martha and Mary by Caravaggio, c.1598

Still, they must be the same sisters: the same names, in the same relationship, in both gospels. As in John, we see the differences in their temperament. Martha busies herself with the necessary things, food and hospitality, while Mary sits listening, a true disciple.

Jesus tells them that Mary, sitting and listening to Jesus, has chosen the only needful thing, the only necessary thing.

We think so many things matter. We cling to the details of life—meals, clothes, money—and all of those things do matter, all of them are necessary, but all of them are so temporary. When we share a meal, is it the food we remember or the company? And clothes? Our designer labels will be forgotten as soon as the food we ate yesterday.

It goes deeper than food and clothes. We love to dwell on having our way, on being right. It seems so important at the time. In a week? In a month or a lifetime? Most of the points we thought so important dwindle to obscurity, like dust on the ledge of a window where we used to sit and look out at the world.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Diego Velázquez, c.1618
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Diego Velázquez, c.1618

A few verses earlier in this same passage, Luke tells the story of Jesus and of the lawyer who answered his own question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Love the Lord your God with your heart, strength, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus told him that he was right, but he did not tell him to go and keep being right. He didn’t even tell him to go and do things that were right. Jesus told him to go and love.

Love God. Love your neighbor.

Food, clothes, houses—we need these things, though seldom do we need them to be so rich as we think. They matter, but they are temporary, transient, as real and as lasting as raindrops.

What did Mary choose that was so needful? She sat and listened to Jesus speak a few words. We don’t even know what they were—Luke does not record them, because those words, whatever they were, mattered for Mary. Like her, we have to be quiet and listen for ourselves.

It may be that God has been speaking to us all this time, and we have been too busy to hear.

Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vermeer, c.1655
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vermeer, c.1655

Two by Two

Mary Theotokos

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Two by Two

[Note—This post is the text of a sermon prepared for the July 3rd, 2016, service at First Baptist Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. My thanks to them for being kind enough to listen to it.]

I begin with a confession. Were I not working from the Lectionary, I would not have chosen these verses as the basis for a sermon.

The Lectionary gives us the story of the sending of the 70 as found in the Gospel of Luke. In fact, this event only appears in the Gospel of Luke. In the previous chapter we read of the sending out of the 12, also found in Matthew and Mark, but in this Gospel the story is told a second time, with a larger number of followers.

We have all, if we’ve been in churches for any length of time, heard sermons and reflections on the sending of the 70 and their return. We often hear a great deal about the instruction to shake the dust from our feet. Maybe it is because that is the one thing in all of this story that we feel we know how to do. It’s recounted with some warmth and fervor, far more often than the instructions of going out side by side into the communities around us. And nobody talks about going out to heal people.

Shake the dust from your feet, leave them to their fate, pronounce the judgment of God upon them and watch for their destruction.

There is something in us that likes the idea. We get to go out there and be right—who doesn’t like to be right? And we get to pronounce judgment on the hard headed heathens who don’t listen and disagree with us—who doesn’t enjoy that?

It just doesn’t feel very Christ-like, does it?

Let’s take another look.

There are some parallels to this passage, such as in Acts where we read of apostles going here and there in pairs. The idea seemed to stick with them. The most notable parallels are in Genesis and the ancient stories of Noah. In the great story of the flood, Noah brings the animals two by two to save them in the ark. We assume they are in pairs for the sake of making more of them. Here, Jesus sends followers out into the world, again two by two. Once again, there is an idea that in the future there will be more disciples. Although in a different way, the command to go forth and multiply still applies.

In chapter 10 of Genesis, we read of the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japeth, the sons of Noah. It’s a long list, a table of the nations, a story offering a symbolic explanation for the range and relationship of different people groups in the ancient near east. There are 70 nations listed, unless you are reading the Septuagint, the first century Greek translation of what we Christians call the Old Testament, in which case there are 72 people groups listed.

As it happens, there is a small textual variation in some manuscripts of Luke, where Jesus sends out 72 disciples instead of 70, another parallel.

A fact like that can cause problems. We see the small differences in ancient manuscripts, and we begin to wonder what the truth is. Or we notice big differences, like the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. Matthew and Luke, based as these two gospels are on Mark, place the story near the end of Jesus’ ministry–it is one of the things that anger the powers that be, leading to the crucifixion. John, an altogether different gospel, places the story near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Did it happen twice? If not, which version is true?

Luke wants us to remember the story of the ark, and how the world was saved. In this Gospel, Jesus is himself the new ark, and all the nations are saved through him. We miss the meaning, and become fascinated by the facts.

That’s where we fall down. We tend to think that facts are true. The sun rises in the east, for example, and sets in the west. Most of us would accept that as a fact, something that is true, but it turns out not to be a fact at all. The sun does not rise each morning, except from our perspective. The fact is that the earth is whizzing through space like a ball on a string, a string called gravity, and while the earth whizzes along it spins, and the spinning of our planet is what makes it appear to us that the sun rises every morning. We’re like a kid on a merry go round, catching a glimpse of her parents each time the thing goes around.

The sun rises in the east. It’s not a fact. And yet, for us and for the way we live our lives, it is true.

In the field of science, facts are extremely important. In astrophysics and biology, facts and the theories based on them are what we use to find a different kind of truth, scientific truth.

When Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” he probably wasn’t talking about quantum physics or geology, and he wasn’t talking about scientific truth, though in many ways the same thing applies.

Like Jesus, we are talking about theology and matters of the spirit. We have to use a different set of definitions, and we have to be mindful that we are using our limited vocabulary in different ways. In our hearts, in our daily lives, the most important truths may not be based on a fact. When we are dealing with the things that are true and lasting in our lives, this kind of truth matters more than those sorts of facts.

It is a difference the church does not always get right. NASA’s Juno spacecraft is approaching the planet Jupiter right now. Over 400 years ago in 1610, Galileo looked through his telescope and discovered the 4 moons of Jupiter. The church, confusing spiritual truth with scientific fact, forced the brilliant scientist Galileo to recant his observations of the way the earth moves around the sun. The story is that Galileo did recant, being an intelligent man who valued his life, but that he quietly said, “And yet, it moves.”

And yet, it moves.

I mention that story because it is important. It is vital that we remember the times when we, the church, were wrong, when we did not get it right, when our understanding of God and of what God is doing and of our relationship with God and with each other—the only things that the Bible talks about—is wrong. Incomplete. Unfinished. We tend to think of scripture as something that is as unchanging as the rising and setting of the sun, but our understanding of it does change. There is an arc, a trajectory of understanding, that travels through scripture from beginning to an end we have not seen yet. We religious folk do not stone witches, not any more. That may be a good thing for a few of us. We do not stone adulterers, not any more, which is a good thing for many of us. Here in the south we eat barbecue, often and enthusiastically, despite what the book of Leviticus says about it.

We can get lost in the numbers, the details. We can get so close to the painting that we can see the brush strokes but miss the whole picture.

That happens a lot. It happened to these 70, or 72, followers. The truth is not in the fact of how many there were—12 or 70 or 72. The truth is in what they experienced.

They came back excited that powerful things happened when they preached the good news– the Kingdom of God is at hand–out in their communities. They barely had an inkling of what it meant, not at this point in Jesus’ ministry, before the crucifixion, before the resurrection. We might suppose that Jesus sent them out more to help them learn than to teach anyone else, but they went out anyway, and they came back excited. “Lord,” they said, “even the demons submit to us in your name.”

That must have been amazing, but it behooves us to see what they got wrong, and likely what we get wrong.

10.19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. 10.20 Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

They were happy about their power, and why not? Most of us like having power, even if it is usually an illusion.

Plenty of Christian groups, many more than 70 or 72, have taken passages like this one about authority to heart. Some of them take the verses quite literally—either thinking that these early disciples literally had the miraculous power to handle poisonous snakes and scorpions with impunity, or worse, thinking that we should do same thing.

There’s problems with such thinking.

First of all, it’s a metaphor, and as we all know, symbols and metaphors are much more powerful than snakes, and much more dangerous. Serpents and scorpions—we can think that Jesus was literally talking about snakes and scorpions, which might have some limited practical application, but it does little to advance the gospel. Or we can take a step back, always a good idea when encountering a snake or a scorpion or a metaphor, and see the big picture. These are symbols representing what is out there in the world. It’s not easy to be a messenger of peace. There are powerful forces that resist the Gospel, people and powerful groups of people, including everything from terrorist groups to governments to greedy corporations run amuck, who do not want to hear the Gospel.

You may have heard the old story of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asks the frog to take him across the river on his back. The frog says, “No, you’ll sting me.” The scorpion says, “No, I won’t. If I were to sting you, we’d both die—you from my sting, and me by drowning.” Thinking of how sensible the scorpion’s answer is, the frog agrees to carry the scorpion across. Halfway over, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog says, “Why did you do that? Now we’ll both die!” The scorpion answers, “You knew what I was before you agreed to give me a ride.”

Here we are, messengers of a gospel of peace, and we are supposed to take that message out among the scorpions and the snakes. A message that is no less than a God-spoken imperative to go out and help the poor, feed the hungry, take care of the sick, make life better for the less fortunate—are we kidding? Don’t we know that if Christians went out there in the world and actually did that stuff, actually fed the hungry, clothed the poor, brought medicine to the sick, that it would take the wind out of the sails of every single radicalized group in the world? Don’t we realize how much it would reduce the profits of giant pharmaceutical companies that have become more interested in paying dividends to stockholders than in producing new medicines at reasonable prices?

There are plenty of demons out there. Plenty of snakes, plenty of scorpions, plenty of fallen angels. Most of them have nice shoes. All of them have agendas. None of them sees any future in the Gospel.

There is another verse in this Gospel of Luke, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” We often act as though it says, “To whom much is given, much more will be given,” and that does seem to be the way of the world. Money begets more money, power begets more power, and all for itself.

That is not the way of the gospel.

Sometimes we get tired of it all. We know that we should speak up, or engage with the world around us, but we want to pull back.

Icon of Simeon Stylites. Historic museum, Sanok, Poland.
Icon of Simeon Stylites. Historic museum, Sanok, Poland.

In the 5th century, in Aleppo, Syria, a monk named Simeon felt that way. He tried living in caves, but people found him. Eventually he came across a stone pillar, about 9 or 10 feet high, and he climbed up to the top, made himself a small platform about a yard across, and made up his mind to stay there, away from people. It didn’t work, of course. When people saw a man standing on top of a pillar, they went over to see what the deal was.

Eventually, his attempt to withdraw turned into a community effort of its own. People got into the idea. They built him a taller pillar, about 55 feet high, and Simeon climbed up and stayed there for 37 years. Some sources say 47. A mighty long time.

A few moments of reflection can supply you with a long list of problems with living on top of a 50 foot tall pillar. By yourself, you’d get thirsty and hungry, and things would get generally unpleasant. Fortunately for Simeon, people of his time and community recognized that crazy as he was, he was trying to live a life closer to God. And they helped him. They put a ladder up so they could bring him food and water and buckets. And people started coming to see him, to get his advice or to ask for his blessing and prayers. And he lasted at least 37 years before dying up on that pole, his body found folded in prayer.

My point, if I have one in telling you about Simeon, is that his weird expression of faith was only possible because of the community around him. Although it was his intent to withdraw, and in a way he managed it by 40 or 50 feet, it was only by engaging with the community that he survived, and they were all blessed by a lunatic Saint on a pillar of stone.

Jesus says that we are to go out there. We have the authority to speak the truth to power, to speak peace to the world around us. We have the power to give rather than take away, to build up rather than tear down. We have the power to help people who need it, to tend to the sick, to make a better path for the poor.

But there are so many obstacles, we say, so many details, and we know who lives in the details.

“Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you,” Jesus tells them. “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

What is heaven? How do we describe it? Streets of gold, one day, far away, on the other side? Perhaps that is so. No one here knows for sure, not yet. Whether we think of literal streets of gold or gold as a metaphor for the path that leads us back into community with the ones we love, we hope for it. But here Jesus isn’t talking about one day, someday, far away.

Rejoice, he tells them, right now, right here, in this life and this time. Rejoice, right here and now, that your names are written in heaven. Rejoice that you are right this moment part of a community of saints—saints here certainly not meaning a bunch of perfect people; the saints of the gospel are, of all things, people like us.

Imagine.

A whole community of saints run through this passage. Disciples. Followers. And of all the ideas contained in this passage, the idea of community is the one I urge us to carry out of this place today.

Jesus sent these people out in pairs. Why? Couldn’t they have covered more territory if they split up? But anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie knows you don’t split up. Bad things happen when people split up. The boogeyman gets at least one of them every time.

So if Hollywood knows that splitting up is dangerous, why don’t we get it? We want to go it alone, cowboy evangelism, but Jesus sent them in pairs.

He sent them two by two, and we might note that nothing in this gospel says he let them pick their partners. It sounds like he picked them, paired them up, as he sent them out. He sent them to communities, to share the road, to share roofs, to share food. He sent them out and told them, very particularly, to depend on one another and, oddest of all, to depend on the people they went out to find. Depend on the people out there—the people you’re going to tell the Gospel to, the people you are going to help. That sounds crazy, depending on the people you are going to find, depending on the ones who need your help, but God works in crazy ways, and depending on one another is how we build a Community. It is how we invite people in rather than keep them out.

And in the end, he says, rejoice that you are part of a community, that your names are listed among them.

And remember that there are different ways of going out, different ways of contributing to our community. Simeon managed it, despite himself, standing on a pole 50 feet in the air.

And our community, the Christian community of the Church, is different than other groups, different than civic groups and charities. Those are fine organizations to support and to participate in, but we make some very peculiar claims, we Christians. For one thing, we claim that life continues beyond the portal of death.

It is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

That means that Simeon is still part of our community. He still contributes. For all I know, he nudged me to include a mention of him in this sermon—I had thought of him, dismissed the idea, but then kept returning to the notion of him standing up there on that pillar, praying for all of us.

Sometimes we Protestants look sideways at our Catholic or Orthodox brothers and sisters, with their icons and statues, praying to Mary, Theotokos. At the same time, we think nothing of sharing prayer requests with those of us who are still sitting here, wondering when this sermon is going to end. What is really so odd about asking those who have gone before us to join us in our prayers? After all, they may have a better idea of what they are doing at this point. And who among them would have a better idea of how to pray for us than Mary?

A word about snakes and spirituality.

This may sound strange, but I’m afraid that we have made Christianity too spiritual. What do I mean by that? It’s reasonable question. The New Testament letter we attribute to James puts it this way:

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

Or, at the other end of the spectrum, we get side tracked by literal thinking, making snake handling a thing while the sick and the poor and the needy people of the world, the people Jesus sent his followers out to find, wait for the side show to be over. Many Christians would rather pick up a snake, real or symbolic—not all snakes slither in on their bellies—than go out there and help anyone.

Proclaim peace, Jesus said. Heal the sick, he said. Show them that the kingdom of God has come near.

The next time someone comes and wants to argue about whether we should take a passage of scripture literally, I suggest we steer them to this one first: Heal the sick.

That is what Jesus commanded. He wasn’t vague. He didn’t beat around the bush. And he didn’t say, “If you can…”

You may remember a sermon a couple of years ago, I think, when Glenn Phillips told the story of the man who came to church for the first time and was so excited. He asked, When do we do the stuff? You know, the stuff that’s in the Bible. Healing people, and turning water into wine, and stuff like that?

That man was in for a disappointment.

We preach to people. Sometimes we preach at them. We tell them all about the spiritual aspects of Christianity. We tell them why they are wrong, why their choices are wrong, sometimes why their very identity is wrong, and if they don’t listen, we shake the dust off our feet. And we do those things because those are the things we understand how to do.

That’s a big deal—realizing that people do the things they do at least in part because those are the things they know how to do. Why does anyone persist in ignorance? By definition, because nobody taught them a way out. Why do people keep making choices that lock them into poverty, or addiction, or mediocrity? Maybe they need a teacher, or better tools to think with, or just a safe place to sleep. Meanwhile, those bad choices are the ones they know to make, the choices giving them some payoff, a feeling of control, or pleasure, or even simply escape.

There’s us, and there’s them. We know about them. They are different. They look different, smell different, dress different, maybe speak a different language. Maybe they even think they are different. Maybe they act like they are better than we are. Maybe they are poorer, or richer, or better dressed, or more arrogant.

All those people who make up “them” are out there. Some of them even look like Jesus.

Remember what Jesus told those followers as he paired them up and sent them out. Go out there to them, he said. Heal them, Jesus said. Feed them. Clothe them.

I expect that everyone here knows about this church and the annual warm the world project, where people needing help get warm clothing for themselves, their children. I put it to you that giving away those coats and blankets may be the most spiritual thing this congregation does. It’s more spiritual than me standing up here preaching. It may even be more spiritual than praying—don’t you think God already knows what we’re going to say?

Heal the sick, Jesus said—if not by a miraculous touch, then work the miracles of medicine and practice the ministry of presence. Feed the hungry—if they aren’t at our door, let’s pair up our dollars and our bags of rice and send the aid to them like Jesus sent those disciples. Clothe the poor—if they aren’t in our community, we can send help to theirs. Buy more wells. Support more doctors. Build a school. Support a teacher. Share a kind word—never underestimate the power of a word—that is the tool Jesus used the most. Take the time to listen. Share one another’s burdens.

Go out there and do those things, and we will be treading on the scorpions and treading on snakes. Do those things, and we can rejoice that our names are written in the community of heaven. Do those things, and the kingdom of God is at hand.

Mary Theotokos
Mary Theotokos

Harlots and Other Holy Folk

Luke 7:36-8:3 | Harlots and Other Holy Folk

A whore of a woman crashes a dinner party, starts crying, and begins washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, bathing his feet in perfume, even wiping them with her own hair. It’s not something you see every day. It’s an awkward scene, and some details are missing.

Mary Magdalene, by Jan van Scorel, c. 1530. Mary Magdalene was often misidentified as the harlot who anointed Jesus' feet with perfume
Mary Magdalene, by Jan van Scorel, c. 1530. Mary Magdalene was often misidentified as the harlot who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume

For instance, how does this strumpet know Jesus anyway? Assuming first century whores didn’t go around with alabaster jars of perfume stashed in their robes, the story as Luke tells it implies some preparation on her part. There must be a history between Jesus and this woman for her to feel so strongly. Here’s another oddity — Simon the Pharisee, uptight rule follower and holier-than-we, knows her, just as she knows who’s coming to Simon’s get together. It makes you wonder.

Take a look at the end of this story, at the list of folk following Jesus. We find the twelve, no surprise though they don’t get their names listed, and there are also Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. Three more women, who have been cured or otherwise helped by Jesus, are listed by name and credited with supporting him from their own means. The twelve only get credit for following him. Just as at the tomb, when it appears things have gone irrevocably badly, it is the women who are responding, giving, offering more than an empty hand.

Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ. Anonymous. German, 16th century.
Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ. Anonymous. German, 16th century.

Women get treated shabbily by some of the characters in the gospel stories, but never by Jesus. He is not always friendly or even kind — think of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7, where Jesus calls her a dog before agreeing to help her. (Those who speak harshly are not always our enemies; those who speak softly are not always our friends.) Simon, in Luke’s story, calls the woman a sinner unworthy to touch a prophet. One thinks of John’s Gospel and the woman caught in the act of adultery and brought, alone, to be stoned to death. How she managed such a singular sin as adultery without a partner is unexplained. Perhaps the man escaped, but it seems the first century audience were more inclined to condemn a woman than a man. Some things never change.

In fairness to the gospel writers, a few men are named sinful. Herod comes to mind. There is also the sinner at the temple, the one whom the self righteous man points out to God in prayer as an example of spiritual decrepitude. Still, if you want weeping, or stoning, or infestation by seven demons at once, it’s a woman you’ll find center stage.

Magdalena, by Gregor Erhart, c. 1515. Louvre.
Magdalena, by Gregor Erhart, c. 1515. Louvre.

Why do we want to see the worst in others, to point out their failings and their magnitude relative to our own small sins? It’s spiritual schadenfreude, taking joy in the measure of another’s destruction, reassuring ourselves of our relative position of moral superiority. We’re whistling past our own graves.

Better we repent of our own sins, and leave our neighbors free to repent of theirs. Who knows, being forgiven, perhaps forgiving ourselves, we might even feel grateful, like the harlot who only cared what Jesus thought of her. The grace described in the gospels is like the perfume in her alabaster jar. Once you break it open, it covers everything.

 

Penitent Magdalena. Tintoretto c.1598-1602.
Penitent Magdalena. Tintoretto c.1598-1602.

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