Sunday after Christmas (B): On the Downplaying of Religious Experience

Sunday after Christmas (B): On the Downplaying of Religious Experience

Luke 2:22-40

By: The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

Somewhere in the great hazing that was the ordination process, I was trained to stop taking religious experience seriously.

I don’t imagine I’m alone in that, and I don’t imagine I’m alone in having a split attention when people are describing their experiences to me.

If a parishioner is relaying a time where they feel, however fervently, that God spoke directly to them I’ve been taught to take the same tack—nod politely and agree. Make sure what they’re experiencing isn’t threatening to themselves or others. Make sure this isn’t indicative of an abusive situation at home/school/work. Are they exhibiting symptoms of something that might be dangerous to their health? Are those visions seizures? Do I need to refer them to a counselor/psychiatrist/general practitioner, or do I just need to call 911?

The answer to each of those questions has been yes at some point or another in my ministry. There were ambulances that needed to be called, referrals that needed to be made, situations that needed to be reported. All of the questions were good.

But. I was trained to take their circumstances seriously. Not their experiences. Not their God moments.

Which might be why saying the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, every evening at evening prayer never sits quite right with me. The Magnificat is eminently easy—cast down the mighty, lift up the lowly. That’s something I can get into. That’s a canticle I can sing out and sing strong. God’s justice is real and mighty and the words of the Blessed Virgin come screaming off the page.

The Nunc Dimittis, though. The Nunc Dimittis always seems like a sigh compared to Mary’s shout. It is something deeply and intensely personal that I’m slightly ashamed to be let into. This is between God and Simeon. And here I am at the close of my day, reciting a promise that was made for someone else.

This is what St. Luke does though. The whole of Luke’s first two chapters are an action/response sequence that shows God working palpably and intimately in the lives of Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the Shepherds, and finally St. Simeon and St. Anna. It becomes a sort of formula. An Angel appears. Good news is announced. Stories are shared. God is praised.

Elizabeth praises God in Mary. Mary praises God in in the work God is doing in her. Zechariah praises God with a newly opened mouth as he presents his son in the temple. Shepherds come streaming into Bethlehem to tell Mary of the Good News that God showed to them, and the reality of that Good News in the baby that she just bore. As Jesus is presented in the temple, Simeon sings out God’s deliverance.

The Spirit shows up palpably, tangibly, in each of their lives, only to cut to moments of profound and public reflection on the spirits work.

The great songs of our faith—The Magnificat. The Ave Maria. The Benedictus. The Gloria in Excelsis. The Nunc Dimittis. All come from intensely personal moments of encountering God in Luke’s first two chapters. And yet, at least in the mainline, the kind of experiences that Luke is so intent on preserving and crafting as hallmarks of the arrival of the Christ, are the kinds of experiences that make us blush.

More and more I’m convinced that this blushing, this shying away from speaking about the way in which God shows up in tangible and meaningful ways is exactly where the work is. It is exactly what the Church needs to claim.

The twentieth century saw the mainline move its clergy into the model of a professional. We were there amongst the ranks of lawyers and doctors, giving clear and unassuming advice and counsel. Keeping our institutions running well and performing admirably. Such professionalism, as well intentioned as it may seem, can make little room for the Spirit, and even less for the messy ways in which the Spirit shows up in our own lives and in our own experience.

There is so precious little in scripture that backs this up. St. Luke seems to believe, rather clearly, that the Gospel shows up in us before we show up to proclaim the Gospel. As it becomes clearer and clearer that we can fill our desks with the utmost precision and professionalism and still see our numbers fall and our witness fade, we might need to take our stories, our personal encounters with God, as the place to start.


Curtis Headshot
The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Episcopal Priest and native Floridian, received his Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2013 and serves as Urban Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he works to build community for the city’s booming downtown, and curates the Cathedral’s neighborhood satellite Circle South. He and his wife are the exhausted parents of two young boys. Feel free to follow the madness on IG @thebrokechurchman. Lee also (rarely) blogs at




Christmas Eve (B): Living Christmas

Christmas Eve (B): Living Christmas

Luke 2:1-20

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Tonight, the Church dispersed throughout the world gathers in vigil and prayer, emerging from weeks of expectant and hope-filled Advent waiting. The faithful do what Christians have done for millennia—singing joyful songs and carols, praying prayers of thanksgiving, and hearing again the age-old story from Bethlehem. God’s incarnate Son, born this night, bringing peace, joy, and love into the world!

The story of this night is perhaps the best-known story of all time.

We sing our songs and say our prayers and tell our stories, and we are assured that since that marvelous night all those years ago in which God came down to Earth and took on our humanity, our universe—our very existence—has been changed forever! But once our singing and praying and storytelling is over tonight, we’ll all go home. Although many will continue the Christmas celebration in the coming days, eventually, business-as-usual will return. The Christmas decorations will come down, the cards will get recycled, and all of that delicious food will get eaten.

And then, reality sets in.

Wars still rage, violence still plagues our streets, hunger and poverty still ravages our communities, and atrocities are still committed by supposed people of faith. So I can’t help but wonder: is it really Christmas or are we still in Advent? Has Christ really come or are we still waiting?

I live in a small town in rural Western North Carolina—the Eastern edge of Appalachia. Last month at our small local hospital, 18 infants were born addicted to opioids. 97.6% of students at our neighborhood elementary school are at or below the poverty line. My county—far from the largest county in the state—ranks third in North Carolina in the rate of drug overdoses. All of that is to say nothing of our social and political realities, where new peaks of “shocking” and “unprecedented” are reached with each passing week. Misunderstandings and misdeeds cause neighbor to fight neighbor. Spouses are suspicious of one another, siblings despise one another, and the political mantra of our time seems to be, “I’m gonna get mine.”

I see all of that and wonder: is this it? Is this the reign of peace and joy and love that Jesus was talking about? In all of our festive worshipping and singing and storytelling, have we missed something?

The 20th century German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions of Christ or his followers. In his essay, “The Divine Dawning,” he asks of God, “Is your humble human existence from Bethlehem to Calvary really the coming that was to redeem wretched humanity from its misery? Is our grief taken from us, simply because you wept too? Is our surrender to finiteness no longer a terrible act of despair, simply because you also capitulated? Does our road, which doesn’t want to end, have a happy ending despite itself, just because you are traveling with us?”[1]

These are hard questions for us to hear—especially on Christmas Eve. But you know, the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that we may be getting Christmas wrong. Instead of celebrating Christmas—recalling what happened so long ago—perhaps we are called to live Christmas as something that began long ago, but continues today.

Christ’s coming as a child in Bethlehem, his life and ministry on earth, and even his death on a cross at Calvary, are only the beginning of the great drama of our life as faithful servants of the Most High God! Novelist Nancy Mairs was right when she wrote, “God is not a White Knight who charges into the world to pluck us like distressed damsels from the jaws of dragons, or diseases. God chooses to become present to and through us.”[2]

So while we gather here to remember the birth of Christ, recalling stables and angels and shepherds, let us leave this place knowing that Christ’s birth is not the end of the story…

If we truly want to live Christmas, then the birth of Christ must take place within us.

But first, we must create a place within our hearts for Christ to dwell. For as long as we cling tightly to our wealth or our status or our power or anything that re-enforces the misguided notion that we can somehow save ourselves, there is no place for Christ.

No, it is only when we do as the Blessed Virgin Mary did and surrender ourselves to a strength that is not our own—a strength that works in us and shines through us, bringing the bright light of God’s love to the desperate and waiting world!

So what will your story be?

Will it be one of forgiveness?

Perhaps a story of generosity…

Maybe a story of hope…

Whatever it is, may you find a place in your heart so that Christ can be born in you this Christmas; and may you share the miracle of His Divine birth with all whom you meet.

Merry Christmas!

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina, and is the editor of Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef. He holds degrees from Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (Master of Divinity), where he is  also completing doctoral work. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.




[1] Karl Rahner, “The Divine Dawning” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2014), 67-75.

[2] Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).

Christmas Day (B): The Frustrating Child

Christmas Day (B): The Frustrating Child

John 1:1-14

By: Ryan Young

A friend of mine once told me that it is impossible for a parent to view Christmas through any other lens than that of parenthood. Until recently I didn’t understand what she meant, but now that I am the parent of a 2-month-old, I get it. So I have to apologize for writing another parent’s view of Christmas—these sorts of articles used to drive me mad—but after weeks and weeks of trying to write something else, I found that I can only see through the lens of my own parenthood right now.

Last year we only hung three of our four stockings. My wife and I had been trying to conceive for some months and had been met with nothing but frustration. The stocking we had bought and hoped to use as a pregnancy announcement went painfully unused. All the traditions surrounding Advent and Christmas—all our language about anticipating the long-awaited Christ child—took on new and painful meanings. It was difficult to celebrate the remembrance of Christ’s birth when we were unsure whether we would get to experience our own. We were parents aching for our child.

John’s prologue lays out a neat thesis of the gospel that follows, and it begins with an introduction of the Christ to whom it witnesses. In the beginning was the Word—the very Word which existed from the beginning and which created all that is. But there was a problem: darkness. Creation had been broken and pain, sin, death, and all manner of evil had come into existence because of it. Creation was aching for reconciliation with its Creator.

Shortly after Christmas, we found out that we were expecting a child in September. The pain was replaced with anticipation. The first time I saw my daughter on an ultrasound and heard her heart beat, I was struck with the gravity of the situation. The event that we have hoped and prayed for was being realized. Every week was met with a new milestone in our daughter’s development; always measuring her size relative to some sort of fruit or vegetable, a practice which I think we should continue for adults (your author is as big as 408 avocados!) All along the way, my wife and I would play a game where we would try and predict what our daughter would be like. What would her sense of humor be like? Whose smile would she have? Would she play soccer or dance ballet? Most importantly, in a world where the special editions are all that exist of the original trilogy, would she accept that Han shot first? Each day the thing that we understood in theory became more and more a reality. Everything was about to change.

But then, news! A man named John is sent from God to prepare the way for the Word. John comes to the people of God to testify to the arrival of the Christ, and suddenly there is something new: anticipation. What form will the Word take? What will this Christ be like and what will it require of us? There is anticipation and excitement in the realization that God is doing something new and everything is about to change.

I’m sure that every new parent has some variation on the same story, but the panic that set in when we were discharged from the hospital was unlike anything I have ever experienced. How could responsible medical professionals release a newborn into my care? Surely this was some sort of malpractice. Since we got home our world has become a gauntlet of exhaustion. It’s not what we had expected—I don’t mean that we came into it without the knowledge that there would be lost sleep, crying, and mountains of dirty diapers, but that there is nothing that could have prepared us for the difficulty and rewards of parenthood. This child was unexpected.

Christ finally appears in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and not everyone is pleased. Having anticipated his coming, many had begun to develop their own ideas of what the Word was to be—perhaps a military or political leader like David, perhaps a high priest like Aaron, perhaps a revolutionary like the zealots—whatever they had thought, Jesus of Nazareth was not it. Jesus with his questions and parables; Jesus who associated with tax collectors and sinners; Jesus with the audacity to work on the Sabbath and claim authority to forgive sins; Jesus who was too weak to raise a hand against the Roman oppressors. This Christ was unexpected.

Our daughter, Iris, is wonderful and terribly frustrating. Young children’s stages of development come and go so rapidly that, just when we get a handle on how to handle her in her current stage, she changes again. Parenthood seems to be about learning to live in a world where the child you wished and hoped for is a reality, but may not be the reality you imagined. She is her own person, beyond our control, and that makes this so much more difficult. But it also means that we get to learn together and grow together; it means that we relate in a way that is real and beautiful.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word who gives life and shines light into our darkest hurts. On Christmas we remember that the Word came to us in our brokenness. Advent speaks to us about reconciliation; it tells us that, although creation has been broken, God is doing something new. Advent asks us to sit in anticipation, imagining the world made new. Christmas is about learning how to exist in a world where Christ is a reality that we cannot control; a reality that is always moving beyond our expectations. This makes Christianity much more difficult, but it also means that we get to relate to the Word which has existed from the very beginning in a way that is real and beautiful.

Thanks be to the wonderful and terribly frustrating Christ child.

Ryan Young

Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He earned his BA in Psychology from Clemson University and his Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Ryan, his wife Rachael, and their dog Zooey, are thrilled to all be adjusting to the birth of their daughter, Iris.

Christmas Day (A): There’s Nothing About Mary

Christmas Day (A): There’s Nothing About Mary

John 1:1-14

By: The Rev. Ann Dieterle

In my tradition, Christmas Eve is the big celebration of the season. We pull out all the liturgical stops: the choir has been working for months in preparation for it; those who decorate the space have gone above and beyond yet again in order to make the sanctuary beautiful; and of course the attendance swells. The Revised Common Lectionary gives several options to use for the Gospel, but most Episcopal congregations use the nativity story from Luke for this occasion. We travel to that little town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve and wonder at the shepherds and the stable and of course the infant Jesus and his mother. Sorry Joseph.

John’s gospel is reserved for Christmas morning and the Sunday after Christmas—when it’s virtually an act of heroism that the poor organist and worship assistants have made it to the service. Maybe a few choir members have joined the instrumentalist and the faithful few who are in the pews whenever the church doors are open, along with the good folk who just don’t like to drive at night anymore. The priest or pastor is running on fumes—just one more hour and a few hymns away from being able to collapse for a couple of days!

It’s a shame really that this beautiful poetry is relegated to several of the more sparsely attended services of the year.

When I preach this text I often focus on the theme of light. It seems appropriate in a season where the nights are long and it’s dark for many people both when they leave their homes and when they return after the workday. And speaking of darkness, as I write this, we are several days away from a Presidential election that is the nastiest of my lifetime. That’s saying something given that I’ve always thought politics was rather ugly. And I lived in Tallahassee, Florida during the 2000 election. The better angels of our nature seem to have given way to our baser instincts these days. Perhaps dwelling on an election that (hopefully) will be over and done with isn’t the track to take for a Christmas sermon. And yet, the living word of God touches us in our own time and place.

Tying that to the hope that we have in Christ that we are delivered from the darkness might be the Christmas message we need. And to know that even when it seems that all evidence points to the contrary, God hasn’t given up on this world. Because the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. The Greek word for light, phos, also means radiance, or the source of spiritual light. Maybe it’s just me but I need daily reminders that there is one true light. Because the truth is sometimes I rely on my own powers to be that source of spiritual light and radiance. And sometimes we give that power to other people or things that aren’t deserving of it.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him. We prize logic and reason. We find that here in the logos of Christ too, of course. But I can’t help but wonder if we have lost some of the beauty of this particular paragraph to an overly pragmatic sensibility. Or if we’ve lost sight of the mystery of it. This is poetry, not prose. It is not written as a mathematical formula or as a program. Or even as some kind of exchange in which you can prove that you are saved. (Receive Christ = I get to go to heaven when I die).  It seems unlikely that the Evangelist could imagine this work being preserved for a couple of thousand years and beyond to be read across the world. It is meant to tell the story of Jesus for a particular community. Imagine that you are living in the year 90-100. You are 60 to 70 years removed from Jesus’ death. The Temple is destroyed and the people that you have worshipped with in the synagogue (you are a Jew but part of the Nazarene sect, one who believes that Jesus was the Messiah) are starting to kick you out. Persecution is a real possibility if not a reality for you. You really expected Jesus’ return by now. You’re not sure what it means to live in this time and place of waiting and struggling and persecutions.

And these words come to you…

In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.

It seems increasingly important that we remind ourselves how incredibly different the social and political reality was for Jesus’ first followers than it is for us. Whether or not the people in your pews have been irritated by Starbucks’ generic green holiday cups or are insulted that salespeople have wished them Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, we are likely still blind to the fact that we live in a world where our religion is still preferred and enjoys many privileges. It is easy to forget that the message of Jesus comes to those who are given neither religious preference nor privilege. Quite the opposite in fact.  Maybe this type of reminder is too heavy handed for Christmas. A gentle way to do this could be to point out that the community John is writing to probably only had this gospel as their guide. They knew nothing of Matthew, Mark, or Luke. What might it mean that the introduction to Jesus doesn’t include a nativity story? Does it change things that there’s no Virgin Mary (Jesus’ mother is never named in John’s gospel) and no shepherds or wise men? How would we celebrate differently if John’s gospel was the only one that we had access to, and we represented a very small, cult-like religious sect, rather than a major world religion? How would we live differently?

The Rev. Ann Dieterle

The Rev. Ann Dieterle is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, nestled in the foothills between the Brushy and Blue Ridge Mountains. She was born on Long Island (be sure to stress the “g”) but grew up in Florida. Since going to Sewanee for seminary she’s lived in Virginia twice and the Chicago area so she is a little bit southerner and a little bit yankee. She is a lover of the outdoors, baseball (Cubs win!), reading, and cooking. Her dog Gordon is cuter than your pet.


Christmas Eve (A): ‘Twas the Night Before Birthing

Christmas Eve (A): ‘Twas the Night Before Birthing

Luke 2:1-20

By: Emily S. Kahm

Lately, I’ve taken up an interest in birthing shows, especially British series like “One Born Every Minute.” Whether it’s an interest borne out of the increasingly serious conversations I’m having with my spouse about when will be a good time to start a family, or just the old-fashioned curiosity that has spawned many a reality show, there’s something gripping about these hour-long ventures into the lives of women in their final moments of pregnancy and first moments of new motherhood. You get a glimpse into the frustration of labor, which seems to oscillate between agonizing pain and extreme boredom. You see how unpredictable this supposedly straightforward method of reproduction really is, and taste the terror of possible loss and injury. You see strange family dynamics play out around a hospital bed. I’m always trying to predict how a woman will cope with labor, and I’m usually wrong. They all find their paths through the exhausting ordeal somehow, but I’m taken aback—nearly every time—by how quickly it all ends. It’s jarring. One moment is loud and frenetic and pain-filled, and then in half a second, someone new is here and the chaos seems, somehow, very long ago.

When I read this Nativity story, I find myself wondering how Mary coped with her labor on the road, far from home, perhaps without midwives or older women in attendance to accompany her through the intensely painful experience. We have a sense of her in the Gospel of Luke as both curious and brave, able to converse with angels and happy to take a long trip to see her older cousin. We don’t talk about it much, but in Catholic tradition, Mary is usually said to be 14 or 15 years old at the birth of Jesus—hardly a worldly age, even if she had had a diverse or cosmopolitan upbringing. I wonder if she cried. I wonder if she shrieked obscenities at her spouse while she labored to create the Holy Family. I wonder if she was also a bit shocked, somehow, when it was all over and she got to meet this “someone new” she had heard so much about from divine sources.

In that perhaps irreverent spirit, the loveliest thing about this Nativity story, I find, is how un-miraculous all of the miracles are. Mary and Joseph were on a truly unromantic trip that they apparently couldn’t put off despite the awful timing. Once Jesus was born, I envision the two of them tiredly improvising with a manger and some spare cloth, seeking the chance to rest before their newborn inevitably begins his new routine of squalling every 3 or 4 hours to be fed. The angels don’t seem overly concerned with comforting the new parents and instead go tell the shepherds everything that’s going on so they can drop by. While the shepherds knew they were journeying to a holy place, I imagine that they experienced some of the familiar delight that I feel when I see a complete stranger with a newborn in tow—I feel a nearly irrepressible urge to offer congratulations and a casserole, hearkening back to a long human history of celebrating our continuation. Whether or not the shepherds got the full significance of the angelic message, at least they knew the everyday but life-changing joy of a family that has just remade itself. It’s a miracle they would know well, even if there usually weren’t so many angels. This story is especially precious to us because we not only know it as a beloved Bible story; we know this story because it happens all around us regularly, and because it never seems to get less exciting.

Luke is able to craft this Nativity story to reflect humble beginnings, a new age that begins in the same way as all of our lives began—with pain and blood and fear, but also with anticipation and joy. Especially as we commemorate Christmas with pageantry and the sweet delights of a favorite holiday, it’s helpful to go back to this simple, straightforward story and the utterly ordinary way that this part of salvation history begins. When we recall just how visceral and untidy birthing is, we start to see the foreshadowing of the cross in this comforting tale. Mary, our main character in the Lukan version, watches the shepherds come and go with tired and grateful eyes. She treasures in her heart the miracle of a safe childbirth and a new family of her own. And, very probably, she begins praying for the miracle of a full night’s sleep.


Emily S. Kahm

Emily S. Kahm is a Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver and teaches at Augustana College. Her research interests include sexuality education in Christian churches and young adults who were raised Catholic. She lives with her spouse and two rabbits in eastern Iowa.