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)

The change within

When seventeen-year-old Hannah said she was drug free, her parents were skeptical. Having participated in a rehab program and given all the support she could expect from friends and family, Hannah was able to declare that she was finding success in weaning herself off a destructive opioid dependence.

But her father was not convinced. When pressed, he simply confessed, “I don’t believe people can change. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict.”

Though fictional, Hannah and her parents’ situation poses a common predicament for many today. Not just of the real struggle with addiction. But also the struggle with belief: Do we change? And if so, how? And maybe more to the point: Do we recognize the change that happens in our lives? Do we want to?

There’s the story of the Zen Monk who was visiting Time’s Square in New York. And he wanted to buy a hotdog. The vendor asked him, “What would you like on your hotdog?”

The monk replied with a smile, “Make me one with everything.” So the vendor made the hotdog with ketchup, onions and lettuce and mustard and all these other nice things. And he gave it to the monk, and the monk gave the vendor a twenty-dollar bill.

And the vendor didn’t give him anything back. So the monk said, “What about my change?” And the vendor said, “The change is all within.”[1]

An underlying belief in Christianity is that people do change. The resurrection of Christ presents the ultimate pattern for life. We die. We live. We grow. We evolve. We are given new beginnings, to live again. Death. Resurrection. Life is dynamic, not static.

On this Transfiguration of our Lord Sunday, we encounter people who change. First and foremost, Jesus. He is bathed in uncreated light and to the onlookers his face radiates a changed appearance. His countenance is transformed before their very eyes. Here the gospel writers want to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, his unique revelation as God’s own. The witnesses to this holy and amazing encounter receive the most wonderful gift of experiencing God’s greatness in Christ.[2]

At the same time, the transfigured Lord encounters us. In the scriptures for this Sunday we witness change in the characters of the bible, specifically Moses, Elijah and Paul.[3]They, and others in the bible, are not static beings, one-dimensional characters. We witness in them, rather, incredible change over the course of their lives and throughout history.

In other words, Jesus is not the only one who shows a divine-like appearance. Throughout scripture, there are others who experience within themselves a transfiguration.

Jesus is the first and foremost. But God’s divinity, though fully expressed in Jesus, is not confined to Jesus. God’s true presence is not limited to Jesus for Jesus’ sake alone. God’s fullness in all of creation is not locked in one specific time of history, two thousand years ago.

Martin Luther called it, the great, wonderful, holy “exchange”[4]. On the cross God experienced the fullness of our human sin in all its humiliating nakedness and vulnerability in order that all for whom Christ loved and died may eventually experience and grow into the fullness of divine life and union with God. This divine-human holy exchange is exemplified and mediated through Jesus.

We may balk at the notion that in our very lives, in each one of us, God is present in the living consciousness of Jesus. How can we be that good, eh? We are so used to imagining a separation there—that God is ‘out there’ reserved exclusively to doctrinal debate alone or in some other person upon whom we project all our hopes and dreams. But within me? In my heart? So that I can live differently, better, a changed person?

St. Paul, elsewhere in his first century writings expresses this truth from the start: In his letter to the Galatians, he says, “God revealed his Son in me”[5]. On the road to Damascus the living, post-resurrected Christ encountered Paul. Over one hundred times in all of his New Testament writings he writes this phrase: en Christo meaning ‘in Christ’. And to the Colossians, he confesses: “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything.”[6]

The vendor’s response to the monk carries metaphoric weight. The change is within. A holy encounter with Jesus first changes us within. The change for the better can happen because God is in us. God works on our hearts. God is relentless. Sometimes it hurts. God is the refiner’s fire, creating and re-creating us from the inside-out.

So that, eventually, the light of Christ’s love may shine forth from our lives, and our union with God will be complete, in this world and the next.

Thanks be to God!

 

[1]Laurence Freeman, “Change is part of the Journey, like it or not”; talk 1 in Mount Oliveto Retreat, Maggiore Siena, Italy, June 18-25, 2016: Change (wccm.org, audio resources, album)

[2]Luke 9:28-43

[3]Exodus 34:29-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

[4]“That is the mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied Himself of His righteousness that He might clothe us with it, and fill us with it.

And He has taken our evils upon Himself that He might deliver us from them… in the same manner as He grieved and suffered in our sins, and was confounded, in the same manner we rejoice and glory in His righteousness.”

–Martin Luther, Werke (Weimar, 1883), 5: 608.

[5]Chapter one, verse sixteen, as translated by the NIV and JB.

[6]Chapter three, verse 11. In the NRSV, the Greek is translated, “He is all and in all.”

Christmas: Jesus all grown-up in us

In the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, Mary — the God-bearer — is depicted in a magnificent rose window above the altar. What strikes me is the size of Mary’s womb. Mary sits in this glorious stained-glass circle with outstretched arms and a womb so large it contains Jesus standing as a grown man, with his arms open wide. (Trisha Lyons Senterfitt, “Feasting on the Word; Advent Companion”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p. 90)

Why the adult form of Jesus? After all, isn’t the Christmas story of Mary giving birth to the Son of Man about a baby Jesus? Was the artist of this stained glass window confusing metaphors?

Or, is there something more going on here worthy of our reflection?

After all, the historical Jesus was a man. But Christ was not his last name. “The Christ” includes the whole sweep of creation, and history joined with him, including you and me. We are members, each and every one of us, of the Body of Christ — this ‘mystical union’ we call it in our liturgy; Lutherans have sometimes called it the ‘invisible union’ of the church. Though we cannot claim to be the historical Jesus, obviously, we are, as Martin Luther described it, “little Christs”. We rightly believe in Jesus Christ — and both names — ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ — are important. We, like Mary, are Christ-bearers.

The celebration of Christmas is not merely a reverie about a baby born in Bethlehem. We do the Gospel of Jesus no favour when we make Jesus, the eternal Christ, into a perpetual baby, a baby able to ask little or no adult response from us. That may have been the role of Advent — the season of preparing the way of the Lord, when we consider how to make room for the birth of Jesus in our lives. A baby image can be helpful, to start with: A sign of grace that results in a sweet feeling of love.

But, eventually, we have to grow up. A mature Christianity, today, receives the risen Christ in his fullness. In relationship with Jesus the Christ, there come expectations. God wants to relate to us in our adulthood — expecting a full, free, responsible, participatory (Philippians 3:10), cooperative (Romans 8:28) and mature (Ephesians 4:13) adult response from us. When we pray, “Come, Christ Jesus”, we are asking for our own full birth and transformation. God, in our growth, wants ultimately to have an adult relationship with us.

When we read in the Gospel today that we have the power to become “children of God” (John 1:12) we are not relinquishing any responsibility and mature engagement with our faith; being a ‘child of God’, a wonderful expression, simply indicates that God is God and I am not; being a ‘child of God’ describes a quality of trust towards God, a trust that despite any delusion on my part that I can somehow earn God’s favour. Because God still has faith in me. God will never give up on me.

But Christ has come! And it is the risen Christ in 2014, not the historical baby, of two thousand years ago! (Richard Rohr, “Preparing for Christmas” Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 2008, p.8-9)

In our lives we have the capability already born within us to have room for our transformation. We are all ‘pregnant’ with the possibility of new life, becoming more than we are, growing up into the fullness promised to us in Christ. For God is with us and in us.

So, what does that path to our transformation look like?

In a modern painting of the manger scene by German artist Beate Heinen, Mary and Joseph hover over their newborn baby boy Jesus. There are no angels in the painting, neither ox and donkey nor any of the people, who in our imagination usually gather around the crib – shepherds and kings; just the three of them: Mary, Joseph and the child lying in a manger, which looks conspicuously like a coffin. The scene is set in a cold cavern like stable from which a winding path leads to a distant hill with three crosses. (Thank you to Rev. Thomas Mertz for this illustration)

In all the glory and celebration of the Advent and Christmas season this image sticks out like a sore thumb. As we celebrate the renewed life and hope for our world in Christ, the reminder to suffering and death creates a stumbling block. And it always has.

“How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?”(Mark 9:12) The words though spoken by Jesus reflect a nagging question on the minds and in the hearts of the disciples: “How can it be that our salvation comes through the suffering of God?” A few years later Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the message about the cross is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1).

You will notice that halfway between the manger and the hill in Beate Heinen’s painting there are three wanderers – a reminiscence of Jesus meeting two of his disciples on their way to Emmaus; still struggling and pondering the same questions, facing the foolishness of the cross.

As all believers they travel the road between the Good News of Christmas, the pain of Good Friday and the Glory of Easter. And it is not until they gather around a table, worshipping and united in the breaking of bread, that in the presence of God all starts to fall into place and their questions come to rest (Luke 24:13-35).

“The word made flesh” is the proclamation of the festive celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. The word made flesh! Meaning, that the Word — Jesus Christ — comes into our very ordinary humanity. But not the glory of humanity in all its splendour and might.

Rather, as the Christmas story reveals, Christ comes into the darkest night of our souls — in the outcast, rejected places. Christ comes into the impoverished places of our lives, and of humanity. As at least one theologian has put it (i.e. Gustavo Gutierrez), the Word made flesh should read: The Word made poor. That’s where Jesus is born and is at work. As Saint Paul put it, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

As bread is broken around the Holy Communion, Christ comes into the broken places in us and into the world where healing is needed. The circle in the Georgia Monastery stained glass reminds me of the trajectory of my life — the promise of completion, wholeness, fulfillment is there, in Christ Jesus. I am continually being re-made, transformed; I am growing, in Christ Jesus. And so are you.

The rest of the world wants to finish Christmas this morning. But the true Christmas message that begins today does not allow us to keep stuck in our baby Christianity. But invites us to grow up — no matter how young we are — in a maturing faith, deepening commitment, and active Christian witness to the newborn King!

May we grow into a fuller, deeper celebration of Christmas in the days to come, as we ponder the mystery of God’s incarnation, God entering our humanity.