The Second Sunday after Christmas
Jesus is training his parents well. Yes, a week ago, we left him swaddled in the manger . . . and in 4 days we will celebrate the arrival of the 3 Kings come all the way from Persia to honor the infant King . . . yet, for those of us who have been blessed to absorb this miraculous, soul-nourishing story of God’s gift of life and light to us all . . . some of us as very young children, others later in our lives . . . all the ways that God offers us spiritual gardens to grow and tend and keep . . . possibly, without our even noticing, until we may realize . . . through verse and song and scripture . . . through the scent of God’s landscape around and within us . . . and always that light – the predominant symbol and expression of our Christian faith . . . if only we can pause to see it . . . to feel it . .
One of my favorite examples of God’s radiance in our everyday occurred the first Sunday after our shutdown here at St. Michael’s when we were beginning to host a small number of parishioners and staff to stream our Sunday 10 AM live and spiritual communion Service with only those attending who were in the service. On this first Sunday morning one of the participants came with her young son and his friend . . . both children about 6 years old . .. Our parishioner’s son was so eager to come back to Church, eager to show his friend all the special places. While the mother was trying to calm some of this very excitement our young parishioner raced down the side aisle calling his friend to come and see as he, still racing, banked a sharp curve into the Angel Chapel and made straight for the row of Angel windows along the side wall. At the wall, on tiptoe with his head straining back as he reached up with one hand attempting to touch the angel, he called out to the angel, ”We’re back! I told you we’d be back!”
We are blessed to have a fluidity of messages and meaning, continually touching our everyday lives . . . if only we can notice . . .
Thank you, John, and all your magnificent musicians, for having us sing all those carols for all those days . . . and more today so that we are never separated from this miraculous story!
Now, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is 12 years old, and beginning to train his parents in what it means to have God’s son as their son living among them as a family. . . Jesus has been missing for 3 days while Joseph and Mary, having searched all the neighbors and relatives with whom they normally make their annual Passover Festival trip to Jerusalem and then home again to Nazareth with Jesus still missing . . . Mary and Joseph now return to Jerusalem where they find Jesus sitting in the Temple among the teachers . . . listening to the teachers . . . and asking the teachers questions . . . 12 years old! . . . unheard of in this time and culture . . .
Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary are astonished to find Jesus engaging with these Biblical scholars . . . so that all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. . . . His parents scold him telling him he has been disrespectful, causing them great anxiety . . . Jesus responds with logic so simple it is quite profound . . . “Why were you searching for me . . . wouldn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?”
Luke tells us that they did not actually understand what Jesus was saying to them and that Jesus then went with his parents to Nazareth and was obedient to them and that Mary treasured all these things in her heart as Jesus grew in wisdom and in years . . . in divine and human favor . . .
Let us pause here for a moment to ponder what really might have been taking place . . .
Joseph and Mary have had over twelve years now to shepherd and protect . . . to love . . . to cherish their son . . . and most essential, to learn to trust God beyond all they could possibly know – other than moment to moment – with God’s own son as their own . . .
Jesus, in his dialogue with the teachers in the Temple, has been calling attention to himself . . . and so his parents must distract everyone from what this could mean . . . Instead, they must direct everyone’s attention to a young boy reprimanded for being disrespectful . . .
Perhaps this time at the Temple reminds us of a much earlier and more dangerous version of the oft repeated story of God’s son being acknowledged . . . being recognized . . . by Kings with royal gifts come all the way from Persia to a tiny, simple shed from which came such radiant light that these Kings following God’s star, travelling this great distance so that they might kneel at the cradle of this child while, at the same time, King Herod was also launching his search to end the life of this child . . . so that the young parents at that time must flee into Egypt . . .
Here Luke is telling us 12 year old Jesus went with his parents to Nazareth where he was then obedient to them . . . and that his mother, Mary, treasured all these things in her heart . . . possibly treasured each time they were forced to meet the potential dangers of life with and within this beautiful boy . . . God’s gift to us all . . . each time in his early life some or all of his radiance may be visible and yet, at least for now, mercifully protected . . . so that here, Luke says, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”
How do we see this child?
How does a humble setting hold such power and majesty? Is it perhaps because of the simplicity and vulnerability . . . that it is filled only with the presence of God? Jesus was not born into the busyness and noise of the public inn. God must come to birth in the quiet places and moments in our lives where we are able to contemplate this extraordinary light come among us – this “true light, which enlightens everyone…”
And yes, great kings and wise men were following that light to come and pay homage to the newborn King, but first came shepherds from the hillsides, listening to the messages of the angels to follow the light of this wondrous star.
How do we listen to the messages of angels today?
Where do we find our quiet place to recognize and reflect on their messages – to guide us in seeking and following God’s light directing our lives?
Is it in the silence of the temporary armistice now several wars ago when soldiers from opposing nations quietly climbed out of their frozen trenches, softly singing a carol familiar to all . . . walking across a deadly wasteland to greet one another in Christ’s name, and then returned to their silent separation of humanity pitted against one another, yet strengthened in their resolve that, should they survive their obligations to their countries, never again would they believe war a solution to establishing peace on earth.
In our Old Testament passage today in Jeremiah the people of Israel are finding the depth of God’s love in the wilderness. It takes courage to profess God’s radiant goodness in the midst of suffering. The wilderness for Israel is a place of sin and desolation . . . the 40 years of wandering that came after the exodus . . a place of hunger, depravation and darkness where hope is in short supply along with everything else needed for life . . . And yet, Jeremiah claims that it was in the wilderness that Israel found the depths of the love of God. In the wilderness, God remained steadfast to God’s promises to God’s covenant people. Though the faith community failed to keep its promises to God in the wilderness, God demonstrated the persistence and resilience of God’s luminous presence in gracious care for all . . .
The prophets of Israel often use the wilderness as a metaphor, comparing that time to Israel’s time of exile and darkness. The wilderness is that place no one wants to go to, but eventually in this life everyone must. Wilderness is that shadowy place where we are apt to lose our way, where there is that day to day struggle just to survive as the shadows darken God’s path. And yet the prophet makes the exuberant claim that even in the wilderness . . . especially in the wilderness, the grace of God is experienced. The implication is that anytime the community of faith finds itself in some “wilderness” we are to look up . . . be attentive . . . and expectant . . . because even there . . . especially there, we will find God’s Grace . . .
And this is so beautifully echoed in our Epistle today from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. We hear the synagogue prayers of Paul’s Jewish past . . the central prayer of the synagogue liturgy turned on the blessing of God for all good gifts. Also it was customary in some of the Jewish communities in Paul’s time to emphasize praying constantly by offering these blessings thrice (3 times) daily. . . This practice was clearly continued by the earliest Christians . . . Paul’s vision of a loving, radiant God forming an adoptive family praying constantly and coming together into prayer 3 times each day . . . these are our roots . . .
Phrases and concepts that in these continued pandemic times offer us a similar strength and courage to hope as we continue to meet with one another in prayer . . . that these Old Testament concepts of seeking God’s nourishing presence in the wilderness offers to us God’s radiance and loving care that we may share this with one another . . . our families . . . our neighbors . . . whomever God sends into our welcoming community and wherever God may call our prayers . . . because this light that permeates our very being and profoundly alters the way we see the world, inspires us to recognize Christ in one another – that in the birth of Jesus we are no longer separated from God. Our humanity is now one with God, permeated by God’s “true light, which enlightens everyone…”
We are so blessed when we can recognize God – in Jesus Christ and in one another . . . and we are so very blessed when we are fortunate enough to be present . . . part of a growing ministry for all . . . especially when God gets pushy!
Not so long ago, many of our churches offered glorious Christmas services with heavenly music and fervent words from the pulpit, while many of the congregation did not know or greet or have personal conversation with one another, most especially about their faith. It was considered not quite the right thing to do to share one’s personal faith experience . . .
Reluctantly, these congregations struggled with changes in their beloved 1928 Prayer Book, awkwardly passing the Peace, possibly even making eye-contact if only briefly –not what anyone was used to ….they would have much preferred our compulsory social distancing . . . and were of course the generations that refused to use nametags . . . Yes, It took a pandemic for us to seek and welcome those nametags . . .
During these anti-nametag years, I was in a large Boston parish – a huge, majestic building, usually about 1/3 filled of a Sunday yet stuffed for all the Christmas and Easter services – with those whose families had always come to this church on these days, and with those who needed to have a church experience on these days and this was the somewhat famous, historic church across the beautiful urban gardens and fashionable boutiques with the glamorous windows so that, somehow, to be inside this church, coming and going by these beautiful gardens and shop windows seeming to promise that if we can look like the figures in these shop windows our lives will be perfect and we will never know pain…..that we will have a perfect and beautiful Christmas. And perhaps some of us may be inspired to return more often – to feel safe and beautiful more often than twice a year…..
Pastorally, we used to call serving in these settings, “mission work” as so many of our people did not have language for why they needed to be there, . . . generations of not talking about one’s personal faith or one’s doubts or fears or needs . . . of God present among us . . .
And yet, regardless of how beautiful and photogenic so many were trying be, we are all mortal, the world brings its challenges into our lives and the lives of our loved ones . . . and since, as so beautifully offered in our readings today, God never leaves us – is always seeking a relationship in our hearts – it was a creative challenge to offer and quite literally, help to give birth to much-needed spiritual resources among our flock . . . something so many parishes have been learning in new ways in these pandemic years . . .
This particular parish, had a longtime tradition of writing generous checks to support charitable good works in the larger community. We had begun to train and lead people into some of the places of need throughout the City gradually creating opportunities for projects and programs sharing leadership and resources with and for all those participating. This was not always smooth or easy and we spent a lot of time encouraging all our participants to trust God’s Grace in overcoming their feelings of unfamiliarity and awkwardness…Everyone was afraid of doing the wrong thing!
Until the year of the Christmas coats….
The parish had collected a number of coats which they delivered to a neighborhood civic center to help people in need through a brutal winter. The coats were collected all
during Advent and delivered weekly before Christmas. Accompanied by some parishioners, clients from the neighborhood center were hired to help ferry the coats from the Church to the center several blocks away. With each trip from the Church, we shared some warm soup and hospitality with our helpers, showing them the Church and having a simple prayer in thanksgiving for being able to help people stay warm in the winter, and for new friends. Several times throughout the tour and prayer-times in the Church, we explained that everyone was welcome to come into the Church at anytime, whenever the doors were open. “Anytime?” they asked us over and over – “We could come anytime?….Even on Christmas?…anytime?”
“Yes,” we said – “most definitely”….and we gave them lots of take-away cards listing the Christmas services, to deliver back to the center along with the remaining coats.
Wistfully, we wondered if anyone would actually come. We also worried about the hospitality on Christmas Eve with so many long-time families appearing for their
semi-annual attendance, many expecting to sit in what was once “the family-owned pew,” and just as many not necessarily expecting to share their space with the wonderful diversity gradually growing over the years in this parish and the surrounding community . . .
We were hoping to increase this night by possibly . . 6 . . . 8 . . . a dozen new friends from the neighborhood
center . . .
In the bustle of the first of 3 Christmas Eve services, some of us wondered . . . stole quick looks out over the congregation, hoping to greet our friends from the neighborhood center. The choir was finishing the Christmas Prelude, the last bits of space were being filled with people in their Christmas finery. And then, just as the choir was re-forming for the Christmas Procession and the nervous treble was humming his pitch to begin “Once in Royal David’s City,” the Head Usher held up his hands to halt the start of the Procession so that one of the other Ushers – mercifully, from our outreach team – could escort several of our friends from the neighborhood center, and their friends – Yes, 12 in all! – to escort them to the only remaining seats in the congregation – the front rows on either side of the center aisle where, for generations going back over a hundred years, no one ever sat. In fact, so sure was everyone that no one sits in the front row, both of these pews held several coats belonging to the elegant occupants of the next row. And in the silence that was the pause before the beginning of the Procession, as our new friends were being escorted to their seats, smiling and even waving to those of us they recognized – and yes, we waved back – the Usher heard them telling one another, “This is the Church of the coats. They give away coats to people who aren’t warm enough in the winter….Look, we are going to the very 1st row….and see, there are coats just waiting for us if we aren’t warm enough…”
Later, with tears openly running down his face – and ours as well – the Usher confessed to the outreach team, “I was absolutely incapable of saying, ‘no, these are not coats to give away.’ My heart was in my mouth preventing me from speaking and I was terrified for what I was sure would happen the minute they might touch one of those coats . . .”
But God worked a miracle that night as, in complete silence, several occupants of the 2nd row not only watched as our guests from the neighborhood center offered one another a warmer coat to wrap around their shoulders, but also offered to help – moving extra coats aside and helping to adjust the ones now wrapped around our guests. Quietly, kindly, our guests were welcomed to settle into the first row of the big Church, to be warm and, yes, to leave that night wearing new and warmer coats.
Our newest guests were not the only ones transformed that night.
And because the Usher stayed until everyone was seated, and then returned up the center aisle very red of face, biting his lip, the glimmer of tears beginning to show – also a first in that Church – the Christmas Procession was delayed long enough for the Usher and so many sitting toward the front of the Church to hear one of the new guest say, “See, I told you they wanted us to come to Church here, and I told you they give you coats if you are cold…”
In the simplicity and vulnerability of the manger, listening to the message of God’s angels, we recognize “the true light, that enlightens everyone…” the light that comes again and again into the world, permeating our very being and profoundly altering the way we see the world, inspiring us to recognize Christ in one another – that in the birth of Jesus we are no longer separated from God.
And this is how God shows us the gifts God wants us to recognize . . . to enter into with love . . . respect . . . humility and thanksgiving . . .
These are the gifts God wants from us . . . that we may recognize and respond to God’s beautiful opportunities for us to love and care for and support one another . . .
So here is a starter gift for God in this New Year . . . the kind of gift God longs for us to recognize . . . to offer . . . and to live . . .
Try living our Collect for today as one of your gifts for God in this New Year . . .
as once again we pray:
Oh God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your son Jesus Christ . . .