Category Archives: Christmas

In Season and Out

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By the time you read this, Advent will be a memory—although we never really leave Advent, do we? We are always longing for love to materialize, always waiting for promises to come true, always scanning the signs of the times, always living under the judgment of a God who prefers mercy to sacrifice, always creating highways in the human wilderness to announce the good news about God’s unshakeable commitment to the earth and all who dwell upon it. Advent may be over, but Advent never leaves us. Desire for joy and justice is the permanent subtext of our lives.

Christmas will have come and gone too—although we never really leave Christmas, do we? We are always adoring on bended knee at cradles occupied by unfathomable babies, always surrounded by glory-singing angels, always offering ourselves and all we have in praise, always finding God most tenacious and tender among the suffering, the homeless and the poor, always subverting the violent power of kings with humility, with the insistence of stars, with the simple truth. Christmas may be over, but Christmas never leaves us. Human life is forever divinized. God forever wears a human face.

By the time you read this, it will be (almost) Epiphany—the season when eyes of faith flood with the most wonderful light, and the beauty of the One who lives and breathes in Jesus’ ministry is irresistible. All season long, the veil lifts and God is known in the wonders Jesus does, the words he speaks, and the kinds of people he calls to his side to share his company and his daily work.

You too, come and see, Jesus says. Come, see for yourselves. And if we go, and if we see, and if by his grace we stay, we will never leave Epiphany, nor Epiphany us.

Come and see, he says. And if we do, we will become like him, all light from light.

According to Matthew

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–Joseph Sleeping, Gentile da Fabriano

According to Matthew, angels do not sleep: in the small hours they intervene, scattering the sleep of others.

They harry exhausted fathers and tip off shrewd men who hail from far away.

According to Matthew, the world is a place where good people’s dreams bulge with warnings, and hope is barely one hard breathing step ahead of tyrants bent on harm.

According to Matthew, there is an inexhaustible supply  of tyrants.

Angels have to work overtime; even then children die.

Only one escapes this time.

He will grow to be the sort of man who accepts angelic ministrations in wilderness and garden, but no more intervention.

Even forewarned, he will not flee; not even put up a fight.

Naming Jesus

Luke 2:15-21  After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

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Image: Unknown , Ottonian, Regensburg, c. 1030 – 1040

It used to be that when I’d find out that a couple was expecting or preparing to adopt an infant, I’d inquire right away about whether they’d decided on a name. But experience has taught me that it’s a very bad question to ask, especially if you also feel it’s your duty to offer a few suggestions! Parents are generally pretty particular and protective about choosing names. It is often a cause of friction between them, and if the relatives are butting in too, everybody is on edge. It’s not for nothing that many of our given names have little family stories attached to them.

When I was leading small discussion groups, I’d sometimes break the ice with a question about the participants’ names. Why were you named Elizabeth or Paul or Malcolm or Linda? Were you named for a hero or saint, a grandparent, a movie star? Was ‘Tiffany’ or ‘Grant’ a hot name the year you were born? Is your name brand new, invented out of wonderful sounds, like Keeshawn or Tawanda or Juwan? Or is it traditional, biblical, like Ruth or Rachael or Adam?

I, for example, was supposed to be named Janice, after my mother’s mother, Janetta. But the labor was long and my head and shoulders were big, and the pain was great, and my mother — who up till that moment had not been particularly devoted to the Mother of Jesus — was heard to scream, loud enough for everyone in heaven to hear: “Get me out of this and I’ll name her Mary!”

Names matter to us. We try to remember names and get them right. We’re embarrassed when we forget somebody’s name. It bothers us when somebody gets ours wrong, adds an ‘e’ on Ann if there isn’t one, or forgets to add one if there is. We don’t treat our names lightly.

Names have a way of saying: Attention! Human being here. To deny people their personhood, we take their names away. When people are sent to prison, they gets a number; when Jews were sent to camps, they became numbers; when Africans were enslaved, their African names were erased and they were given different ones, left nameless, or called ‘Tom’ or ‘boy.’ To sing, then, as they did, “Hush, hush, somebody’s calling my name…” was a defiant assertion of human dignity. Jesus knew their names.

If our names don’t feel right, we change them. You know, one minute he was ‘Prince,’ and the next he was ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,’ and then he was a graphic logo. We snicker, but we also understand. In some irreplaceable way, our names do more than identify us: they create us. And the simple utterance of a given name often generates the most intimate intimacies. Recall the scene in the Gospel of John when one of the women who went to anoint the entombed Jesus met a man she thought was the caretaker. She demanded to know where Jesus’ body was. He said, ‘Mary.” And she knew him.

Names elicit real presences. If you doubt the power of a name to evoke a person, go to the Viet Nam Memorial. Watch people trace with their fingers the names cut into the wall as if they were making out the features of a well-loved face in a dark room.

Names, the scriptures tell us, are also important to God. Practically any place you open the Bible, you’ll find God preoccupied with names, naming people, changing their names, explaining their names. This God won’t assign you a number. In fact, God is said to know us before we are even conceived, and that means by name. God, we are told, has inscribed all our names on the palm of the divine hand. In scripture, being called by name is a rich gift—it carries with it implications of belonging and safety and redemption and covenant love and mission and accountability.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that God had a name picked out for Mary and Joseph’s child. When he announced the birth, Gabriel also announced the name, and thus the couple was spared all the intra-family hazards of having to choose one. They never fought over which grandfather to honor, or whether to name him Joseph, Jr., or whether to saddle him with a hip name or an old fashioned one. And when eight days had passed, and the time came for him to be circumcised, they gave him, Luke’s gospel says, the name commanded by the angel before he was conceived in the womb– Jesus, that is, ‘God saves.

Naming their child was an act of obedience, one of a series of obedient responses that marked the odd experience of these parents. This obedience is the only reason Luke mentions the naming ceremony in his gospel (it only merits half a line, after all): he wants to show that neither this child nor the child’s parents are independent agents. They operate faithfully in response to the divine plan for reconciliation. Mary and Joseph name the child Jesus because even though it’s plain that neither of them understands fully what is happening, they believe God has spoken, and that’s enough for them. From the beginning, then, the child whose name means ‘God saves’ is a son of obedience as well as a son of God.

And that never changes. This association of salvation and obedience permeates Jesus’ life. It is a major concern of the evangelists too. You can invoke Jesus’ name again and again, one says, but unless you are also obediently carrying out God’s will, it will do you no good. You can be his mother, the first to call him by name, says another, but unless you are hearing and obeying God’s word of mercy, blood connections and old family stories won’t do you any good either. Even the demons know Jesus’ name, we read, and they easily invoke it; but they are still demons.

Each of us has a different name. But we have a name in common too. We who follow Jesus bear his name together. It is the name God likes to call us, even if it is also the one we find hardest to call ourselves, since we are usually better at knowing ourselves deficient and a cause of God’s disappointment than we are at knowing ourselves holy and a source of God’s delight. And yet by grace the name of Jesus is indeed our best and truest name, the name that delivers us into God’s intimacy. If we hush, hush, we will always hear the Spirit calling it, reminding us of the dignity we possess even when we ignore or squander it. Bearing this name of Jesus self-consciously, purposefully, responsively, will make us children of obedience like he was, so that we will not be children of God in name only.

The name of Jesus belongs first to the baptized, but it is not an exclusive name; it also fits every person who obediently seeks the mystery of God and the community of justice and wholeness that is the will of God. Anyone who has ever participated in depth in inter-faith dialogue or in cross-cultural movements for liberation knows well how much the name of Jesus is revered and ‘adopted’ by people whose religious lives unfold in other traditions, sometimes more so than within the Christian family itself.

The name of Jesus is a precious name. Many a soul has gone trustingly to an awful martyrdom or to a kinder, everyday death with this name on its lips. Many a struggling heart has found that name sweet in times of illness and strong in times of fear. Many courageous, persevering men and women have invoked its righteous beauty in the face of injustice and oppression. We pray privately and communally in that name, assured by scripture that God responds as faithfully to it as Jesus did to God. We sing stirring hymns in church about the glorious name of Jesus, and about how every knee must bend to it.

But we are generally timid about naming Jesus explicitly outside the small circle of our faith communities, and sometimes even inside them. Some of us hesitate to name him to others (and to each other) because we think we don’t believe enough, or believe correctly, or believe at all. Some think it is hypocritical to speak of him if one’s actions do not match in every particular one’s rhetoric. Some of us fear ‘imposing’ his name on others, as if merely speaking of Jesus were coercive or imperialistic. Or we worry that if we invite people to glimpse this cornerstone of our hope, to grasp the reason for our commitment to the world, they will hear in our naming of Jesus only the narrow-mindedness of the ultra-conservative right or the fanaticism of the fundamentalist.

Of course, we can’t help but be acutely aware that in the name of Jesus every imaginable human horror has been and is still being devised and perpetrated. We know all too well what happens when naming Jesus is divorced from obedience to the God whose ways are not our ways. But the solution is not to keep still about him and about the way we know and experience him. If we are silent about Jesus, withholding from the world the reasons for the way we think and live, we concede the field to the demons who happily speak his name in the world, but only in order to lie about him.

In the silence deepened by our reluctance, God only knows what those demons might say—that Jesus prefers white, well-to-do people? That he stands against the violence of the Palestinians, but not that of the Israelis, or vice-versa? That he is satisfied when the state punishes killing with more killing? That he shows his wrath at Western homosexuality by striking millions of heterosexual Africans with AIDS? That he thinks the answer to gun violence is more guns? If we fail to name him as we have come to know him, at the sound of his name named by such demonic voices, knees will bend all right, but it will surely be in loathing, or in ridicule, or in dread.

But what if we were in the world naming him differently? What if we were less timid and more aware of the difference naming him as we know him could make?  What if we encouraged each other to name him, telling stories of how we got this name, telling the world why we think it is a lovely one, why he is ‘God saves,’ and not ‘God condemns,’ why he is worthy of our allegiance. Maybe the more we name him, the more his obedience will live in us, the more his life will be reproduced in us, and the more his compassion will go out from us to the world God loved.

I Christmas: Turn Around and You’re Grown (Luke 2:41-52)

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–The Child Jesus with A Walking Frame, Hieronymous Bosch, 15 c.

I.

n the 1960’s, Kodak ran a commercial during “The Wonderful World of Disney” that became one of the most beloved in the history of advertising. It was a simple photo sequence that captured the progress of a baby from infancy through girlhood, adolescence, young adulthood and marriage, ending with the young woman coming home from the hospital with a baby of her own in her arms.

The pictures were accompanied by a song called, “Turn Around.” Parents everywhere blubbered openly when it played.

Where are you going my little one, little one?

Where are you going, my baby, my own?

Turn around and you’re two,

Turn around and you’re four,

Turn around and you’re a young girl

Going out of the door.

Where are you going my little one, little one?

Little pigtails and petticoats,

Where have you gone?

Turn around and you’re tiny,

Turn around and you’re grown,

Turn around and you’re a young wife

With babes of your own.*

The ad and its soundtrack were impossibly sentimental, but something about them struck a deep chord. Little ones grow up, we all know, and they do it, it seems, when you are distracted for a split second.

Only a week ago it was Christmas. The Babe in the manger hadn’t even opened his eyes. Last week, he wasn’t old enough for strained peas. This week he’s an adolescent. How did we get here so fast? Turn around and he’s born, turn around and he’s grown…

Grown, and something of a prodigy. He’s wowing the teachers in the Temple with precocious questions. He’s a willful kid too, and he’s giving his parents fits. I’m told that Luke uses the same word to describe Mary’s anguished confusion in this episode as he uses to describe the consternation of Dives, the rich man who ends up in hell in the story of the beggar, Lazarus. Luke knew something about the underbelly of parenting, I guess.

In the church I grew up in, we called this Sunday ‘Holy Family Sunday.’ It was a celebration of the ideal family, the one we were supposed to imitate in our own. I could never figure out what was so ideal about them, though. It didn’t seem very ideal to me to misplace your kid in a big crowded public place. And when his careless parents find him,hb_32.100.123 Mary doesn’t seem to remember or much care that Jesus is Somebody Special. She’s as frazzled as any ordinary mother would be and yells at him as if he were a run-of-the-mill pre-teen. Jesus’ reply is curt, even dismissive. This sounded more like my own family, certainly not a holy one.

But the preachers of my youth didn’t seem to notice. They especially played up the last line of the story—He went down with them and was subject to them. ‘Go and do likewise’ was the moral of the story, as far as they were concerned; and every parent in the sanctuary nodded in agreement while we kids slumped in our seats. The Holy Family is a family in which parents are good and caring, and their kids submissively obey them.

–Christ among The Doctors, Cataln, 14th c.

II.

Of course this is Kodak sentimentality passing for Christian instruction. Not only is this not a story about a Holy Family, it’s also not a story about being submissive. It’s a story about the time that comes when one must disobey. It pinpoints the moment when an authentic calling renders human absolutes relative. It’s a story in which we learn that sooner or later choices have to be made that override the obligations even of blood kinship.

Luke shows us this moment in Jesus’ life by playing on the word ‘father’ in the exchange between the boy and his mother. Mary asks, ‘Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been searching…’ Jesus responds, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ In this moment, Jesus shifts his allegiance from Joseph (‘your father’) to God (‘my Father’). This child is becoming an adult, and we know he’s on his way because he is sorting out competing loyalties; he is negotiating the tensions between ordinary expectations on the small stage of a nuclear family and great aspirations on the larger stage of a ministry to the world; he is making choices and accepting the obligation and pain that comes with a life-claiming, life-shaping call: ‘I must be about God’s work.’

Eventually Jesus will return home with his parents, for the time being, the story says, and ‘obediently.’ And then the gospels are silent about him for the next eighteen years. But the die is cast at twelve. According to Luke, Jesus was born for one purpose only, the common human purpose—to grow up; that is, to achieve an adulthood shaped around chosen priorities. Here Jesus is already clarifying what his will be—only those things pertaining to God’s house and God’s business. The priorities Jesus chooses will lead him to demand a wrenching reordering of everything. We know how that goes: The mighty cast down, the rich sent away empty; the meek inheriting the earth, the last moving into first place, mercy trumping everything else.

Jesus’ commitment to God’s work will also demand a new kind of kinship that persistently condemns the ordinary idolatry of clan and family. His first and final allegiance to God’s house over all other allegiances to every other house – personal, religious, political, national – will eventually mark him for a state execution; and in the meanwhile his own family will be embarrassed, confused, and disheartened by the things he says and the company he keeps.

But all this is in the future. It will come soon enough. In a split second of Marian distraction, he will be fully-grown. In another blink of an eye, he will be dying on a cross. But for this split second now, he is a boy, learning the Law and beginning to walk in the pathway that will be his life.

Christ in the House of His Parents ('The Carpenter's Shop') 1849-50 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

–Christ in the House of His Parents, John Everett Millais, 1849-50

III.

In the Christmas season, I hear many smart, faithful Christians say they don’t believe any longer in the New Testament’s infancy narratives—especially Christ’s miraculous birth from a mother who was also a virgin. As I grow older, I find these ancient stories easier and easier to believe, at least to believe in that way theologians call ‘a second naïvete.’ My problem is not with the divine child in the manger, but with the precocious, willful boy in the Temple who is figuring out that God’s business merits the unswerving dedication of a whole life. As Will Willimon once noted, it is harder to believe in a life ‘unreservedly shaped around the priority of God’ than it is to imagine that a virgin could bear a son. It’s not that hard to embrace the possibility that God came as a human baby if God stays a baby and does not grow up to be a man who is God’s alone, and does not demand that we choose to be God’s too.

Former UCC General Minister and President, John Thomas, tells this story:

“Bethlehem, Pa., was named by its Moravian founders after their first communion service was held on Christmas Eve. Today ‘the Christmas City’ offers a delightful array of Moravian Christmas traditions [to the public] every year… [Annually], a Nativity scene is erected on the plaza between the library and city hall, dominated by a huge lighted star on the mountain overlooking the Lehigh River to the south.”

One year, John continues, while he was serving a church in nearby Easton, “the newspaper reported that the figure of Jesus had been stolen. Jesus was eventually located… where the vandals had left him and, to avoid a recurrence, the city mothers and fathers bolted him to the manger after they returned him to the plaza.”

Most of us, as John comments, are “happy to keep Jesus bolted to his manger.” Who wants him grown up and walking around, “meddling in the greed that denies children health care, or a decent home, or a safe school? Who wants him challenging our easy resort to violence as the only way to personal and global security? Who wants him asking us awkward questions about why we treat the creation as little more than a convenience store filled with raw materials to satisfy our endless desire? Who wants him holding up a mirror to the deceits and betrayals of our personal lives? Better to keep him bolted [to] that manger.” (2)

Yes, indeed. We hate to see the Infant Jesus grow up so fast. He’s such a pretty little baby. We want to savor the Kodak moment forever. But it’s not just because he’s so sweet and cuddly that we hate to see him outgrow his crib. It’s also because deep sown we know that when the infant becomes a boy, and the boy becomes a man, we will be asked to grow up too.

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*“Turn Around,” by Harry Belafonte, Alan Greene, and Malvina Reynolds

And Love Is Everything: A Newtown Carol

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1.

Sweet on the breeze of angels,

songs in the night ring clear:

Heaven to earth is singing

anthems of peace and cheer.

Unbrightened, in reply

poor earth sends up its groaning:

Peace is an orphan here.

2.

Swift on a path of longing,

roused by the angel song,

shepherds run to the stable;

hope makes their going strong.

The manger cold and still

meets eagerness with anguish:

Here hope is killed by wrong.

3.

Brighter than sun and planets,

sign of the ancient vow,

Star of the East is shining,

even the wise men bow;

but shadowed hearts in mourning

see only rays of darkness:

No light shines on us now.

4.

Close by the cradle, Mary

bravely the secret sings:

Love is a sea of sorrow,

love is a broken wing;

love has no guns, no forces,

love cannot win a battle:

And love is everything.

It’s O and O and O

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O, O, said God, when at one word

the day burst forth from night:

O light, O lovely, God declared,

astounded by the sight.

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O, O, cried Mary in alarm

when God begged her assent:

O mystery, O yes, she said,

unknowing what it meant.

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O, O, the kneeling sages wept,

their tears with stars entwined:

O love, O ken beyond the ken

of star-pursuing minds.

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O, O, the longing church has sighed

through all things ill and well:

O Day, O Mystery, O Lord,

O come, Emmanuel!

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And when our healing comes at last

we’ll hear a word we know;

for heaven makes but one sweet sound:

it’s O and O and O!

Housekeys: The Flight Into Egypt

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Eastman Johnson,  A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves (c. 1862)

Matthew 2:13-22

Unlike Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew’s has no journey home to be counted, no overbooked inns, no shepherds, no manger, no swaddling clothes. Instead, Matthew has Joseph and Mary already living in a house in Bethlehem, their own house, presumably; and it is there that the Magi visit the child Jesus and give him gifts.

After the Magi leave, an angel warns Joseph in a dream that Herod is coming after the Child. The tyrant is prepared to slaughter many children to be sure he’s rid of one. Joseph should take his family and run for it, the angel says; cross into Egypt. Stay there until the tyrant dies.

Here’s what I wonder…

After he woke up, and while he was still shaking from the dream, and after they had packed a few things and saddled up the donkey, did Joseph take the key to the front door of his house in Bethlehem, string it on a rawhide cord, and tie the cord around his neck?

Or did he give the key to Mary after he boosted her onto the beast, handing up the child first, and then the key? Did she tuck it in the travel bag underneath the diapers and the talcum powder and the brand new copy of Goodnight Moon?

At the end of their street, did Joseph stop and turn around? Did he look back at the house they had just abandoned, one ear cocked for the hot breath of the horses, the other for the boots of bloody soldiers, conscripts most of them, kids, just following orders?

Did he find it surreal that he, a terrified man fleeing with his family, was also, in that very moment, wishing he’d gotten around to fixing the creaking tread on the stairs, the one Mary said would come right up some day and trip her, sending her headlong down the narrow flight? Did he say to her with his eyes, “Hold onto that key. Don’t lose it. I’ll fix the stairs, really I will. As soon as we get back…”

And when they made it over the border and found a place that rented to people without papers, did he wrap the key in a cotton cloth and place it in an olive wood box with leather hinges and a brass latch, and place it in a niche in the wall, and cover the niche with an old calendar from a company selling insurance?

And on days when no one would give him work, or during the night when Mary was out cleaning offices, or that first time he realized that his toddler couldn’t remember anything about home and was acquiring an Egyptian accent, did he take the key from its niche behind the calendar and lay it on his palm and rock over it, singing songs of Zion in a foreign land? Did he dream at night of return? Or did the good St Joseph drink himself into a stupor over what was lost? Did he buy too many lottery tickets? Did he take out his rage on the furniture?

And when the news finally came that Herod was dead and they could go back home, did he take the key from the box, knot it back on the cord, and tie the cord around his neck? Or give it to Mary to put in her bag, this time tucking it into one of the little boy’s sneakers so that it would be easy to find if they got to their door very late on a moonless night?

And when they crossed the border again and discovered that the danger had not passed—because for the refugee, the exile, the poor, the person with the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong opinion, the wrong sexuality, the danger never passes—and Joseph decided not to go to Bethlehem where they had a house with a door that the housekey fit, but to settle up in the Galilee, what, I wonder, became of that key?

What did he do with a key that was useless in a new lock in a new house, a key that opened no doors in Nazareth? What became of the key that worked only in the lock of the front door of the little house in the little town of Bethlehem?

Here’s what else I wonder:

Whose necks do such keys hang from now? In whose bags packed for a midnight dash to the border are they tucked away underneath the baby’s shirts and the sippy cup that quacks like a duck when you squeeze it? In whose small boxes are those keys resting? Who is rocking on tired knees singing songs of home over them, like lullabies to a baby, or anthems to a flag, or offerings to a god?

And what traumas are being inflicted, what grievances are being nursed, what resentments are building, what terrors contemplated, what weapons amassed in the name of keys and locks and doors and houses and memories and dreams and towns and lands and borders and nations?

How will it end, this Christmas story? For this cold hard story is as much the story of Christmas as the one about lowing cattle and awestruck rustic men. How will it unfold, and how will it end, this story of Jesus, barely begun?

And is there an angel lingering over earth fierce enough to rouse us from our deep and heedless sleep? Is there any message frightening enough to alert us to the danger we’re in? Is there any light from heaven bright enough to show us this old story as our neighbor’s story, and as our own?