A sentimental Christmas?

We say that ‘Christmas is for the children’. Especially, parents and grandparents will focus much of their energies to make sure the children are happy: 

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

That the rituals around the Christmas tree and fireplace will fuel their anticipation and wonder, 

That the events in church and community the family attends will reinforce their understanding of the meaning of it all. 

And that all these efforts will bring delight to those who watch and attend them. And make it all worth the effort.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth – the Christ child born in Bethlehem – in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke especially reinforce our emphasis on children: The story of the Word made flesh in Jesus begins with Jesus the babe. The story of Jesus that ends at the cross of Golgotha and the empty tomb begins in a baby’s cries from a feeding trough in a stable for animals. 

Yes, Christmas is by the children and for the children. It is no wonder many of the annual Christmas pageants today are performed by children.

And yet, the story of faith compiled over decades and centuries into what we have in the bible challenges us. What the early Christians give us disrupts our sentimental bias in how we celebrate the Christmas season.

Let’s go back in time a week ago. First, December 21, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, was traditionally the feast day observed for Saint Thomas, the doubting one, who was martyred in India in the mid first century. Then, December 26 is the feast day for Saint Stephen, whose violent murder at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious we read about in the book of Acts.[1]

And, finally, today, the first Sunday of Christmas, the church commemorates the ‘Holy Innocents’ – the children of Bethlehem – who were murdered at the hands of Herod trying to get at Jesus and eliminate any potential threat to his despotic hold on power.[2]

Not exactly a Christmas observance that brings the warm fuzzies. Why has the tradition included these rather violent and distressing facts about Christian faith so close to Christmas? Wouldn’t we rather put off such disturbing elements until long after the holidays when the kids are back to school and we return to the mundane realities of our lives (when we can ignore the truth of the faith)? Wouldn’t we rather preserve the genteel, Hallmark images cradled in soft-white light where all the children are squealing with delight?

The church, in its wisdom, pierces through our illusions and disrupts our escapism. In compiling the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, the Gospel writer, chose to express a profound care for the children – especially those who suffered under the violent injustices of corrupt and despotic rulers. Matthew will not ignore what happened around Jesus’ birth, but will bring voice to it. Expose it for what it is.

This Christmas story is a very human, and a very real, story of life and death, sin and grace. None of it can be ignored nor dismissed, and certainly not simply in order to cradle our cocktail-numbed minds. The Gospel pours cold water on us and calls us to ‘wake up’ in the face of our reality:

That following Christ will sometimes be a rocky road, to put it mildly – as the ancient martyrs of the faith exemplified by their faithfulness and service. That following Christ will sometimes shock us onto our knees in lamenting the evil in the world – when children elsewhere and in our own communities suffer incredible injustice and violence.

That following Christ will sometimes call us into risky and urgent action that doesn’t give time for proper goodbyes. That following Christ will sometimes call for unconditional grace and acceptance of the stranger – as Egypt welcomed the fleeing holy family refugees from neighboring Judea. 

We don’t care for the children if we turn a blind eye to injustice, especially at Christmas. We don’t care for the children when we insist on avoiding the chaos and upheaval that our faith implies. Christmas isn’t just about sentimentality. It is more about taking responsibility and learning from the witness of the Gospel message.

One element of the storytelling from the Gospel today catches my eye: It is the rapid plot movement. This story reflects anything but a sedate, static tableau:

One moment, the holy family is in Bethlehem being visited upon by the magi; the next moment they are fleeing to Egypt. Then, Herod reacts, is infuriated by the magi’s deception, and sends his murdering squads to Bethlehem. Even though it would have been some time passing until Herod’s death, the story-telling doesn’t permit but a breath before another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream to ‘get up’ and return his family to the land of Israel. But not to Bethlehem where potential threat still exists, but to Nazareth. And all of this in ten short verses.

The pace of the story-telling itself evokes responsibility, not sentiment – not even a lingering, inert contemplation. Joseph doesn’t even have time to think, just react. And trust himself and especially trust God. The truth of the story is expressed in behavior and action.

The witness of the story-tellers of old have something to say to us, who very much like to sit-back and put-up-our-feet during the Christmas season. Perhaps this word to us is a reminder not to forget to take up the mantle of faith, to do our part in meaningful action and behavior. And be responsible, as the body of Christ, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

“For if the babe does not again take flesh in us today, the Bethlehem star is but an optical illusion leading to nothing. 

“If we are not empowered to offer a gift to the one in need, then there are no wise men searching. 

“If there is no praise or joy within our hearts, then there are no angels singing; no shepherds watching.”[3]

May these days of Christmas bring to us a deepened awareness of the care we have and express for this dark, broken world. And in so doing fulfill our responsibility as bearers of the Christ child.

This responsibility is also a gift God gives us at Christmas. It is a gift that is activated in us by the witness of all the saints of old.


[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

[3]Bishop Michael Pryse, Christmas Message from Bishop Pryse (www.easternsynod.org, December 24, 2019)

Are we ‘divergent’?

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph…” (Genesis 45:1-3a)

The Joseph story in Genesis paints an incredible picture of personal endurance through hardship, a journey which resolves into a final and satisfying conclusion. It is story-telling at its greatest. Those words of Joseph near the end of the book of Genesis, “I am Joseph”, mark a cathartic climax to his tumultuous life in Egypt. We can feel Joseph’s relief when he reveals his true identity to his brothers who had to this point no clue that he was indeed their long lost brother whom they had betrayed. These words signify the forgiveness and reconciliation that Joseph then expresses with his brothers and father, indeed with his extended Hebrew family and identity.

You see, since the time when his mischievous, jealous and evil-doing brothers sold Joseph into Egyptian slavery, Joseph was essentially a stranger in a foreign land: a Hebrew man of God living in the polytheistic religious culture in Egypt. What is remarkable, is that Joseph is able to use his gifts and street-wise talents to climb the ladder of success in this foreign culture, to the point of being appointed Pharaoh’s right-hand man during one of the greatest crisis facing the region at the time — a seven-year famine.

The main character, Tris, in the popular series of books by Veronica Roth entitled “Divergent”, struggles with her identity. It is no doubt to my mind why these books and movie are popular among young adults seeking to establish ‘who they are’ in this world. In this distopic vision of earth in the future, humanity is divided into five factions; each faction has a particular function in society: to advance knowledge, defence, care-giving, truth-telling and working the land. The goal of this culture is to keep people in only one of those factions throughout their lives. Of course, reality is not so cut-and-dried.

Young people are tested for their aptitude and then they need to make a choice, which faction they will join. Once that choice is made, they cannot change. Tris discovers she doesn’t fit the mold; she is ‘divergent’, meaning she has an aptitude — the gifts — to belong to more than one faction successfully. She becomes a threat to the leadership of the society who wants to stamp out all divergents and keep things in the society simple, clear-cut and easily controlled. Similar to Joseph, this, too, is the journey to discover and embrace one’s true identity.

But I believe it is a journey not just for young adults, but for all of us. Even in the church, as we week-by-week come here to re-connect with our religious identity. In next week’s Gospel reading (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus himself asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” The question of identity is crucial in our understanding not only of God but of ourselves in Christ Jesus, the Body of Christ. Who are we, as Christians and as Lutherans, in the world today some two thousand years after Jesus walked on this earth? And what is our purpose, our mission?

A while ago some of you expressed interest in exploring more our Lutheran history and identity — and how we communicate that identity in our Canadian context. I found a good summary of this from a retired professor from Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, who a few years ago gave a talk at Luther Hostel about Lutherans in Canada (“We’re from Away: The Lutheran Experience in Canada”, Robert Kelly, Luther Hostel 2011, pages 4-7).

Professor Robert Kelly asserts that Lutherans came here as immigrants who did not speak English. We came to Canada, essentially, as “Foreign Protestants”. This reality posed some challenges and reveals potential strengths in our identity.

Perhaps the most serious issue we face because of our history, Kelly writes, is how it has impacted our sense of mission. Most of our Lutheran churches began as groupings of people who shared an ethnicity and a language. Because our roots were in Germany and the Nordic countries our understanding of mission centred on making contact with immigrants from the old country who were already Lutheran. The British Government helped us with that in the 19th century by settling people of the same ethnicity and religion near each other. Our mission goal, then, was to get them into our congregations and keep them in the fold before some other group got them. Our mission was to make sure those who came as Lutherans remained Lutherans. We weren’t so interested in finding people who did not share our language and ethnicity. We were most certainly NOT a “church in mission for others.” Our mission was to care for ourselves and people like us.

Nevertheless, the fact that our ancestors came here as “foreign Protestants” who did not speak English is a strength we can build on. Kelly writes that “in a country that is defined by the diversity of its immigrants, we were one of the original groups that was neither French nor English. We have in our history an understanding of what it is like to come here and be perceived as different. In our historical experience is the possibility that we could relate to the present experience of immigrants from all over the world.”

Being “foreign Protestants” also put us a bit outside of the mainstream of society. This can be an advantage especially as the mainstream of society does not hold the values and beliefs of one of Martin Luther’s most enduring doctrines, “justification by grace through faith”.

That is, there is a tendency in the mainstream of our culture to blame the poor, the underprivileged, the minority, the unemployed or the victim for their situation. The roots of this negative attitude lie in the religious mainstream of British Protestantism: the idea that our prosperity in the world is a sign that we are the elect of God. It is this mainstream that promoted and still promotes the idea that we secure our place in the world through hard work and positive thinking. It is pretty much like the slogan at the heart of much of late Medieval theology: If you do your very best, God will not fail to reward you with grace.

Of course, Martin Luther had trouble with the basic idea that what makes us right with God is our work, our efforts to earn God’s favour. As Lutherans our history and theology has at its best opposed the mainstream approach. As Lutherans we say that our place in the world is not something we can earn, but is a gift of God’s unconditional promise in Christ. That is what the Lutheran Reformation was all about.

“Luther’s basic insight was that any scheme of salvation that is based in us and our ability to do our very best — whether that is defined as doing good works or believing the proper doctrines or hard work and positive thinking — is really no scheme of salvation at all. Rather it is a guarantee that our lives will either be wracked with anxiety or lived in the shallowness of self-righteousness. The ideology by which our society lives is precisely the ideology which Luther spent his adult life opposing” (Robert Kelly).

The Lutheran alternative in understanding the Gospel is that it is not about us and what we achieve, but about God and what God is doing. It’s about joining God’s activity wherever God is — which puts our preferences and comfortability at risk. The cross of Christ is the path of salvation, but it isn’t easy. The promise, of course, is that through the difficulties — like it was for Joseph — we do find our way.

Many Christians have stumbled at Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman in the Gospel text for today (Matthew 15:21-28). It’s hard to make sense of first Jesus’ arrogant silence to the woman’s request; and then Jesus’ downright rudeness in essentially calling the woman a ‘dog’. This language is not what we expect of Jesus, it it? To be sure, we can explain the behaviour of Jesus in a way that we can easily grasp; for example the fact that Jesus talks at all to a Canaanite woman is a radical affirmation of her personhood (Dock Hollingsworth, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 3, Bartlett/Taylor eds., John Knox Press New Westminster, 20011, p.361).

But perhaps the point of this Gospel text is simply to suggest to us the truth that Jesus and his Way does not always come through for us as we may expect. Jesus does not always conform to what we hope for. In other words, God is experienced in unexpected places and people. We cannot put God in a box.

We Lutherans have an important mission in Canada today. That mission is not, I believe, to find the lost Lutherans and bring them back to the orthodox fold. Rather, our mission — in the words of Robert Kelly — is “to be communities of people who speak the Gospel, the Good News of unconditional promise, clearly and who speak it to, for and with anyone who needs to hear it no matter where they come from or who they are.

Jesus does, in the end, grant the Canaanite woman her plea, as an example of Jesus’ radical inclusion of a Gentile. Here is another biblical appeal for the broad, unconditional reach of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Our mission is to be communities of people who have heard the Good News of God’s promise in Christ and who live in the world as if that message is true. When we do that we have fulfilled the promise of our history” and our identity. We are being true, to who we really are.