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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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.