Not the Christmas We Would Have Chosen

May I be the first to wish you, officially, Merry Christmas.

I never imagined a Christmas quite like this. I never imagined keeping the church’s doors locked tight on December 24th. But for those of you who chose to tune in tonight, to find the stream or to listen later to the podcast let me say, officially merry Christmas.

I want to explore a simple thought with you tonight, it’s this. 2020 has been an awful year, and this year may bring us emotionally closer to the Christmas story than any Christmas in my memory.

We have a pretty romanticized vision of Christmas. All the renaissance paintings of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, all in beautiful lush clean robes, all with skin the color of porcelain. Sure, they’re in a stable, but it is roomy. The straw looks like a good prop. Already, you see, the image is breaking down.

See, we tend to juxtapose this story with a great deal of nostalgia. I’ll own that some of my favorite memories from childhood come from Christmas. Even as a small kid, I can remember the time feeling special. We ate extravagant meals, made long trips to see relatives, spent hours decorating and singing. And, as a clergy kid, we spent days and days at church.

But Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were not upper middle class white Americans. They weren’t even Italians. Our usual Christmas images are pretty distant from the original story.

Icons

This strange year, I got to be friends with an artist I’ve long admired. Holy Communion now is home to the icon “Mama” written by Kelly Latimore. We blessed the icon this summer, not long after Kelly finished the last layers of paint and varnish, not long after the death of George Floyd, which occasioned the work. You can see Mama right here behind me.

But I first came to know Kelly through another icon, Refugees, La Sagrada Familia. The icon depicts Mary, Joseph, and little Jesus just a few weeks after the story tonight, on the run. Matthew’s Gospel tells the story of their flight to Egypt. In Kelly’s image, Mary carries pink plastic shopping bags. Joseph wears a backpack and a worn ballcap. They look like the refugee families fleeing Central America through Mexico.

Kelly’s work has occasioned quite a bit of pushback. Some Christians take offense, at Jesus depicted with features like George Floyd. Some Christians take offense at the Holy Family depicted as modern day migrants.

Not long after the birth, according to Matthew, the family has to flee more political persecution, and they go as refugees to Egypt. The lives of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were much closer to the lives of the Central American migrants I have known than they were to my life today, or the lives my parents when I was growing up. The stress levels the Holy Family endured, the long arduous journey, the sense they didn’t have a choice, they weren’t in control.

Hello lack of control.

Then we come to this year. If I’m honest, part of what I am grieving is a loss of control over my own life. I’m grieving a loss of control over my work. If I’m honest, part of why I love Christmas so much is because I love making the magic happen. I love the moment we dim the lights and folks sing Silent Night. I love watching the faces of grandparents as their grandkids tell the Christmas story. I love sitting around the table with our music director and children’s ministry leaders, and making decisions about how this drama will play out. I love being the ringmaster for the Holy Night. I love having a front row seat to the congregation’s encounter with the story.

The Irish poet and contemplative Padraig O’Tuama would tell me to say, “hello, lack of control.” Padraig likes to say “hello” to those things in life that are difficult, or important, say hello to whatever might also be a teacher. “Hello, lack of control.”

This Christmas, I’m not in charge. Not here at the church. Not at my own home. I can’t will away this pandemic. I can’t change the health guidelines so I can see my family, or share a big table with friends. And I know that my little family is lucky. Ellis and I share our life with a two-year old. I get a front row seat to Silas learning about Christmas, and opening presents, and that makes me again, so privileged this year. But I still find myself grieving the Christmas I wish I could have made.

I know I only feel an ounce, an ounce, of what Jesus’ family must have felt on that Holy Night. But this Christmas, we are perhaps a little closer to what the King James’ Bible describes as “sore afraid” when it describes those shepherds whose wandering and fragile daily existence I can scarcely imagine. No one in this story had control over their life. No one in this story had the means to make another decision. No human being in the Christmas story was wearing a beautiful clean flowing robe. No one had a clean face or a full stomach. The Christmas story is a story of people who are on the edge, scared, tired, and who have little control over their daily lives.

Which is why the Angels’ words are so full of promise: “Do not be a afraid…I bring you good news, of great joy for all the people.” Do you notice how repetitive those words are? Good news. Great joy. That last bit also strikes me, “all the people.” All. It’s as if the angels know that the shepherds are not used to hearing good news for them. Mary and Joseph are not used to Good news being good for them. The wealthy, the Roman occupiers, the landowners get good news all the time. But Good news isn’t for them. The angels have to be clear, this is good news for ALL the people.

Christians proclaim the scandalous idea that the infant Jesus contained the fullness of God. There is a theme in theology that wonders about God’s decision to be born an infant. God chose the fragility, the vulnerability of a tiny baby. That message is magnified when you consider the circumstances into which God chose to be born.

Perhaps the poet Madeleine L’Engle said it best in her poem First Coming:

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

We cannot wait, until we have our lives back under the illusion of control. We cannot wait until next Christmas to celebrate the good news of great joy, for all people. Our world is ready, our world is hungry for us to follow the Christmas story. Our world yearns for balance.

This Christmas, if you are grieving the Christmas that could have been, perhaps there is an invitation. Next Christmas, will we look backward to all of the picture postcards of our childhood, or will we look forward? Will we work to make sure that in the year to come there has been good news, great joy, for all, yes all the people?

God came to share our grief, to touch our pain. But God came that the world might also rejoice. This might not have been the Christmas you would have chosen. Hello lack of control. But in the midst of it all, God is still born. The news is still good. There is still great joy for all the people. Merry Christmas.

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