What Child is This? | 28 December, 2014

Texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40

Growing up we had an Advent tradition in our house that is probably familiar to many of you as well.  A few weeks before Christmas, my mother would have us clear off all the clutter that had been accumulating throughout the year on the hutch near the main entrance to our home.  Once that was done, she would pull down from the attic a big box full of smaller unmarked cardboard boxes.  One by one we would then carefully move the small boxes out onto the kitchen table.  I think the fact that my brothers and I could never seem to remember after a whole year which unmarked box was which gave this normally mundane task a real sense of the mystery of ritual. 

Finally, with the utmost care, one of us would open the first box, carefully sliding out the Styrofoam casing or bubble-wrap and exclaim something like, “I found an angel!”  Or perhaps less excitedly, “I got a sheep.”  Once we freed the Precious Moments figurine from its box, we’d place it on the cleared-off spot on the hutch where we thought it should go before returning to see what treasures the other boxes held.  I think it became a sort of competition to see who would find the baby Jesus, but secretly, I thought finding any one of three kings was way cooler. 

By the time it was all over, the entire familiar cast of characters was present.  Of course we had Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.  We had the sheep, a donkey, a couple camels, a cow who was undoubtedly lowing (whatever that means), a couple angels, some shepherds, the three kings, and the little drummer boy also made an appearance every year.  The scene was rounded out with a couple evergreen trees and even some fake snow. 

Sometimes when I hear people talk about the “war on Christmas” this scene is what comes to mind. 

No, this “war on Christmas” is not about some organization trying to take the “Christ out of Christmas” in the way people traditionally think about it.  The baby Jesus is there.  He is central.  And if I remember correctly, in our nativity set he might have even had a little halo. 

But more than anything else, this Jesus is “precious”.  The scene mashes together the entire Christmas narrative into a single story, disregarding the timeline of who showed up when or the significance of why.  All the characters are white, clean, able-bodied, and doe-eyed.  All the animals are both clean and tame.  It throws in a dash of elements from the popular tradition, though, who knows, maybe a lone drummer did happen to show up that night.   And it finishes off with what are probably some unlikely scenery choices because here in the West an ideal Christmas has to be a white Christmas, right? 

The story or rather the stories of Christmas gets whitewashed, their edges get rounded, and we are left with nothing more than a “precious moment”.  Taken to its extreme, this mashing together of all the stories leaves us with a distant but kindly father figure who delivers his gift to people from all over the world one night a year.  This precious Christmas loses its edge because it disregards the distinctiveness of the stories that surround the birth of Christ.  In the end, I think this is the ultimate “war on Christmas” because even though Christ is there, he doesn’t seem to mean very much.  

So maybe I’m being a little too hard on Precious Moments, but I have been really challenged and inspired by our congregation’s focus on “disruption” as the theme for the Advent and Christmas seasons.  In the past weeks we have not been afraid to confront those stories surrounding the birth of Christ that disrupt our precious notions of the Christmas season.  In the Sunday School class that I help lead we have also been exploring the notion of disruption, and a few weeks ago while trying to get the youth to think about how Mary’s magnificat fit with this theme, one of them asked very thoughtfully, “Does disruption always have to be a bad thing?”  In that moment, I knew they were starting to get it.  Disruption is not always a bad thing, but it is most certainly a hard thing, a messy thing, a thing that forces us to reevaluate our world and throws us off balance. 

The danger of the Precious Moments Christmas is that it tends to soften the edges of the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth in an effort to make them all fit nicely together.  But we need each of the distinctive stories to confront us with their surprising, hard, messy truths.  So even though we’ve already moved beyond the nativity scene in the lectionary, I want to stay with this theme and think about the moments of disruption in today’s texts? 

The opening of the gospel reading feels like Mary and Joseph are finally getting back to something close to normal after what probably felt like a crazy few months hearing from angels, leaving on unplanned road trips, going into labor at the least opportune time, and getting all sorts of strange visitors.  The first three verses of todays reading tell us three different times that Mary and Joseph are getting back to normalcy by living out the customs and traditions handed down to them through the Law of the Lord.  They bring Jesus to the temple for what might be considered the equivalent of the modern baby-dedication.  They make their sacrifices, they go through with their customs like they are supposed to, and then they are greeted by two regulars at the Temple, Simeon and Anna.  None of this feels too disruptive.  Even the fact that both Simeon and Anna have been waiting for the Messiah for possibly their whole lives and the Holy Spirit reveals that Messiah to them in the form of the baby Jesus doesn’t necessarily feel too disruptive.  This pretty much falls in line with what they’ve already heard up to this point.

There is certainly an element of surprise to this idea that God’s Messiah would come as a vulnerable child.  There is certainly a hint of wonder at the way Simeon is clear that this Messiah will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”   I’m not a parent, but I think there is certainly an element of shock to the idea that strangers would come up to you in Church and claim that your child was their hope for redemption.  All of these are disruptive in their own right, but as I studied these passages I couldn’t help but be struck by Simeon’s words to Mary after he has finished praising God.  He turns to her and says, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Up until this point in Luke’s gospel, all the stories and messages and songs about Jesus’ birth have been triumphant and positive.  Gabriel tells Mary, “He will be great, and he will be called the Son of the Most High.”  Elizabeth proclaims, “Blessed are you, Mary, among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”   Mary, herself, declares, “God has shown strength with God’s arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”  And then Simeon pulls Mary aside and tells her, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

When Simeon finishes his first song of praise about Jesus, the text says that Mary and Joseph were amazed.  But when he issues this ominous warning to Mary, the text and Mary seem to be silent.  This is a far cry from the angel’s warning to not be afraid, and I can only imagine Mary’s reaction.  For the first time in Luke’s gospel, we experience the disruptive foreshadowing of the reality of what it actually means for that tiny baby in Mary’s arms to be the Lord’s anointed one. 

There are lots of ways to understand what it means for Mary to have her own soul pierced by the reality of her son, the Messiah.  Perhaps Simeon was pointing toward the reality that Jesus would radically redefine family, seeming at times to leave behind his biological ties.  Maybe Simeon is thinking of the ways that Jesus’ teachings might challenge Mary’s own understanding of what it means to be God’s people.  Or perhaps Simeon is pointing to the agony that Mary will experience at the foot of the cross, seeing her son both rejected and killed.  Regardless of the exact reason, both Mary and readers of this text are hit with the realization that whatever it means for Jesus to be all the things that have been said about him, it does not necessarily mean these things will be easy or tidy or neat.  Maybe in this moment Mary flashes back to the words of her song and realizes that the proud will not be scattered, the powerful will not be brought down, the hungry will not be filled, and the rich will not be sent away empty without a massive disruption of the status quo.  If Jesus is truly to be an occasion for the falling and rising of many, as Simeon says, then of course there will be many swords that will pierce many souls in that process. 

This is not the precious moment I typically think of when I see the baby Jesus, but perhaps this is exactly the kind of message our nativity scenes ought to be telling.  When we look at the Holy Family and the cast of characters that have assembled around the Christ child, we need to ask ourselves, “What good news do these figures represent?  What are the stories that are not being told?  Who are the people who are not represented or the realities that can’t be captured in a cute figurine?” 

As I ponder these questions, I am challenged by the reality that for many in highly liturgical traditions, today, December 28, marks the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day to commemorate the children that were slaughtered at Herod’s command in response to the birth of a new king.  Talk about disrupting our Christmas celebrations!  The disruptive power of this story was made very real to me a few weeks back during Music Sunday when the choir sang an arrangement of the song Lully Lullay, a carol with a text that gives voice to the mothers of those murdered children.  Wedged between Good Christian, Friends Rejoice and Songs at the Stable was this song with text that includes the verse: 

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day,
His men of might in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

I sat in my pew feeling slightly uncomfortable hearing these words.  The particular arrangement of the song built its musical intensity by having the choir repeat the words “to slay” over and over, and each time I tensed a little more.  It’s a beautifully haunting song, and I’m thankful that it was included because, to me, this song and this story force us to look at the baby Jesus and ask the question, “What child is this and how is he good news for even these grieving mothers?”  If the baby Jesus is only good news for the pale-faced, doe-eyed, clean-cut and tame figures of this world, then he doesn’t really mean that much. 

And so I wrestled all week trying to figure out how this child represents good news to those who find themselves singing the deep, soulful refrain, “Lully, lullay thou tiny child.” At some point, I turned to the other texts included in the lectionary for this week hoping they might offer some help, but there I found Paul telling me in Galatians 4 that “When the fullness of time had come, God sent God’s Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law.”  At first, I found myself frustrated by this idea of the “fullness of time”.  Trying to place myself in the minds of the grieving mothers, I thought, “How can this be the fullness of time?  What if God had waited until after Herod had died?  Couldn’t there be another perfect moment to send God’s Son that wouldn’t result in these senseless deaths?” 

But as soon as I asked that question, it hit me that there may never be a perfect moment when unarmed children are not the victims of senseless violence by those in authority.  The Precious Moment version of Christmas is a lie that tells us that the birth of God is only a warm fuzzy space. There is no moment precious enough to be safe for the Son of God because truly good news is always dangerous, messy, disruptive news. 

And a sword will pierce your own soul too.

I may never know what the “fullness of time” actually means, but I think what I’ve started to realize is that the good news is not that God shows up in Jesus to turn all our moments into precious moments.  The good news is that Jesus shows us that God is here with us even in our most un-precious moments.  Even in our moments of deep anguish or consuming anger, God is here with us. 

We need these stories to show up at the nativity scene and around our communion tables and anywhere else we gather in the presence of God because without them we succumb to what is described in a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie as the “danger of a single story.”  Without the voices of the grieving mothers, without the old prophets reminding us that the good news does not come without sacrifice, without the reality of dirty shepherds or a full appreciation of the oddity of foreign magi showing up around the manger, without these disruptive stories we end up with a scene that is both precious and meaningless. 

The danger of the single story is that it allows us to become willfully blind to anything that doesn’t fit. 

I am reminded of the argument Michelle Alexander makes in her book The New Jim Crow about how racism has been perpetuated in American in part through the unrealistic goal of a colorblind society.  Too often our attempts at equality ignore the realities in front of us.  Our justice system tells the single story of colorblindness, yet ignores or downplays the reality that black and brown men are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate to white men.  Alexander writes, “We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.”

The good news of Christmas is not found in a collection of precious moments but in the collection of people bringing their messiness and their curiosity and their hard truths together in a way that honors the reality of their situations and proclaims that God is here among us.  Ms. Adichie closes her talk about the dangers of a single story by saying, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” 

It is this kind of paradise that I long for when I think about the good news of Christmas, when I think about all those who approach the manger scene with the question, “What child is this?” on their lips.  A paradise not made up of perfect people who all look and sound the same, but a paradise where imperfect people are made precious by the realization that God is there among them.  A paradise that doesn’t ignore the realities of difference or diminish the stories that seem disruptive, but a paradise that allows those differences to enrich our lives.  A paradise that is not afraid of disruptions but welcomes them as a helpful tool for remaining accountable to the realities of another. 

So, who shows up at our nativity scene this year?  What do they say?  What do we allow them to say?  Perhaps, more importantly, what are the voices and the stories that are missing and why?  If we listen closely, I think that there are a lot of voices answering the question, “What child is this?”  The more we listen and the more we recognize the limits of a single answer and the danger of a single story (however precious it may be), the more we regain that paradise that Jesus came to show us was possible. 

And so, my wish for us, my friends:
–  Is that the spaces we consider the most holy would be filled with a wonderfully messy cast of characters.
– That we would not be afraid to have our own souls pierced by the danger of the good news.
– And, perhaps most importantly, that whether our Christmases are merry and bright or messy and broken, we would know that God is here among us.