Luke 2: 1-20
Rev. Peter Faass
It’s amazing how our familiarity (or overexposure) with something can make us less aware of it. This overfamiliarity can cause it to lose meaning. Christmas falls into that category.
We get overexposed to the secular part of Christmas with its emphasis on commercialism and partying. To limit that relentless bombardment of the season, we put up filters to keep ourselves from being physically, mentally and spiritually overwhelmed. When the real meaning of Christmas arrives at our door on Christmas Eve, we don’t recognize it. We might look at it and reply, “Sorry, there’s no room at the inn.”
There’s a lovely framed watercolor in our parish office that captures how this happens. I didn’t pay attention to this print, which I’ve passed thousands of times, until we repainted the office. The title of the print is “The Holy Family Enters Cleveland.” The Plain Dealer wrote an article about the print, painted by the Rev. Ralph Fotia, a local Methodist minister, in 1986.
The print’s delicate strokes evoke Asian art to me. The Cleveland skyline with the Terminal Tower and the Standard Oil buildings are in the distance. The onion domes of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral are to the right. A snow-covered field lies before them, with a small tree standing to the left. Joseph trudges through the snow in the foreground, leading a donkey that is carrying Mary as she holds her baby Jesus. The Holy Family appears to have an abstract halo over their heads.
Inside, the card reads:
Overbooked inns in Bethlehem
A waiting family out in the cold
Still wandering through our cities
Looking for the room.
Plain Dealer writer Darrell Holland stated that (the depiction and the message) “suggests the needs of the Holy Family at Jesus’ birth are reflected in the lives of many Greater Clevelanders.”
In the scripture, the Holy Family experienced hardship twice in the Nativity story:
Rev. Fotia was an urban minister, pastoring to many Clevelanders with circumstances similar to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. His painting is a theologically powerful tableau, reminding us that many others, like the Holy Family, need relief from the world’s oppressive ways.
Fotia noted, “People like the Holy Family continue to seek shelter and food and to have trouble finding them. There are still overbooked inns like in Bethlehem. Jobs are not available and people suffer.”
This powerful print breaks into the overfamiliarity with Christmas. It reminds us of the original Christmas story’s scandal. This season’s relentless bombardment should not prevent us from seeing the Nativity’s true meaning and the message it yearns to deliver.
God came into human history as a helpless, newborn baby. He was laid in a feeding trough in a cave with livestock. He was born to a young unwed couple. God was born on the road. A Super 8 Motel would be luxurious in comparison. Those who initially visited him were shepherds, those on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Everything about Jesus’ birth is antithetical to what we would expect for a kingly birth, never mind a deity’s. However, everything about this birth is a profound statement about God and, as the angels proclaimed that holy night, “those whom God favors.”
By entering history in this manner, we understand this is a new kind of King. This isn’t a Caesar living decadently in an imperial capital, ruling by intimidation brute force and fear. God help us if Caesar had gotten his hands on a cellphone with a Twitter account! Instead, Jesus’ birth is about a king, partial to the most disadvantaged, who wanted humanity’s redemption and wellness. As the angel announced to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
In this king, there is hope for the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the persecuted, the immigrant, the Muslim, the African –American, the ill, LGBTQ people, sexually-abused women, hungry children, those without health insurance and everyone who would be considered the least among us. This includes everyone wandering in the cold and snow, in a hostile world seeking a place of compassion and hospitality, in Cleveland, throughout the nation and the world. These are all members of the Holy Family. God specifically chose derided people like these to initially proclaim the good news. This is why they respond with gratitude and great joy!
Jesus’ birth shows that God has not forgotten anyone. With Jesus’ birth, the good news proclaimed that God didn’t abandon us to the brokenness and sin-sick world. In brokenness of our own dark times, the hope of that truth is the light that shines brightly from the stable of Bethlehem. The baby Jesus light calls us to be bearers of that light, to bring it to those whom Rev. Fotia stated are “Still [are]wandering through our cities, looking for the room.”
The Rev. Pat Hanen wrote this advent meditation:
“The power of God to know the truth and do right is eternal and incontrovertible. But if we follow Jesus, we have to bear the pain of using that power in this world. We have to stand up, suffering the pain of gravity. We have to do right, acknowledging our own sin, repenting from it, and changing. We have to exercise compassion, risking ourselves, recognizing that the destiny of a candle is to be consumed in giving light.”
In the newborn Jesus, God has not forgotten us. Let us not forget those he came to serve.
Let us welcome those Holy Families who wander the cold, desolate places seeking warmth, welcome, compassion and dignity. By so doing we will be glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.
Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace to all God’s people.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28
The Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg
I am anxious, excited, terrified, wildly hopeful
a complete turmoil of nerves,
unsettled to the point that my stomach feels queasy.
I am tongue-tied with anticipation
as if speaking might burst the bubble of a dream,
yet if I don’t speak, I might explode with all that overwhelms me.
Tense in between the bliss and chaos of waiting,
I just might collapse into tears.
Something has been promised!
Something has been promised
that is so keenly desired,
so desperately needed,
so longingly dreamed of,
so impossibly out of reach
yet hauntingly within sight
and I tell myself to be cool, for heaven’s sake,
to not look as eager and anxious as I feel
just act like it’s no big deal
whether the promise is fulfilled,
whether the dream is realized.
Be smooth, I tell myself – non-anxious,
so that no one sees your delight
if the impossible becomes possible
(perhaps as soon as tomorrow), but also
so that no one will know your disappointment
if the dream remains elusive for years or forever.
Just breathe and no one will know your disappointment
if the gladness never replaces the mourning,
if the harvest never springs from the earth,
if the ruins are never restored.
Pretend like it doesn’t matter
if the wilderness never blooms,
if good news never manifests for the poor,
if broken hearts remain unmended,
if release is never granted to the prisoners,
if injustice is never repaid or made right.
Swallow that knot in your throat
that moments ago was your heart
leaping ecstatically at the glimpse of a possibility.
Feel the knot settle into the pit of your stomach
like it’s a lost friendship or a loved one’s death,
like it’s the daily gasp of work’s overload,
like it’s an unexpected medical bill,
like it’s another tweet that compromises your life,
like it’s a wave of depression that comes as surely as the tide,
like it’s the fatigue of wondering whether we can make a difference.
It’s hard to linger for very long
in a state of genuine anticipation.
It’s hard to sustain an Advent spirit
that waits on the edge of its seat
without secretly fearing disappointment.
Because after a while of watching the pot
that is the promises of God and wondering
when exactly those promises will come to a boil,
we can be tempted to adopt the perspective of those who
heard John the Baptist’s prophecy of a coming Messiah:
the priests and the teachers who were curious to come to the river
but – after generations upon generations
of living in anticipation of a messiah
without a messiah showing up –
they couldn’t get excited or find any hope within themselves
because the hope that once unsettled their stomachs
and caught their breaths had hardened
So many years they had waited:
charged with watching,
charged with praying,
charged with holding onto hope,
charged with leading in the meantime,
charged with patience and faithfulness
while the world around them crumbled and rebuilt
and crumbled again, surviving governments and wars,
waiting for the relief promised through Isaiah,
waiting for the joy promised even before that
to the ones wandering in the wilderness.
Along comes yet another prophet
“Make straight the way of the LORD,
the Messiah is coming!”
and the hope that has become a pit
of cynicism and depression
cannot even wonder
whether this time it might be so.
“Who are you?
Why is your prophecy
any different from all the others?
If all you have is water,
why should we believe you?”
Their mouths had forgotten
how to laugh at impossible possibilities,
like Sarah laughed
at the news that she would
give birth to a long-awaited son.
Their tongues had forgotten
how to rejoice and shout and sing,
like Miriam sang
after the people crossed the Red Sea
even though a wilderness still lay before them.
Their stomachs had forgotten
the delicious nervousness
of a promise on the verge of fulfillment
like a Christmas present waiting to be opened.
Their hearts had forgotten the quick pound of love,
the sudden wild racing of a burden relieved,
the heat & blush of tears overflowing with joy.
Their dreams had forgotten imagination,
too convinced by the harsh realities of the world
to fantasize about a harvest in the desert
or equality for the disenfranchised
or peace for the nations.
But if their dreams had forgotten it
or if our hearts have become hardened to it
or if our spirits have resigned themselves
to settle for less in order to avoid disappointment,
then we very likely need John the Baptist
to splash a little cold water on our spiritual weariness;
we need Isaiah to shout without ceasing until
the ears of our hearts hear again what just might be possible:
freedom for prisoners,
healing for the brokenhearted,
good news for the poor and the oppressed,
a garland of gladness instead of ashes of lament,
a song of praise instead of a faint spirit.
God is about nothing less
than the full realization of justice
and the healed embodiment of love –
and this does matter, terribly so.
I try to play it off, to be non-anxious in hope.
We try to abide one day at a time,
try to work hard while we wait
– without minding the pins and needles –
but our wariness and weariness in waiting
can easily harden in our efforts
to be practical and non-anxious about God’s promises.
These promises have come slowly before,
they are coming slowly now,
but we can’t be cool about it, we can’t be calm
because truly it matters
to see justice realized and love healed;
desperately it matters and
not just to us but to who God is.
And if we only ever glimpse
the faintest shadow of such a vision;
if we only ever hear whispers
of a few faint syllables of such a possibility;
it would be enough
to set our pulses racing,
to make our palms sweaty with nervousness,
to make our stomachs anxious and our hearts tender,
to well up our spirits with laughter and tears of joy,
to get us shouting about the beauties of heaven
and to send us compulsively, obsessively
into the world with love that knows no limits.
At the risk of open-heartedness
and even broken-heartedness,
we must be unsettled with hope:
nervously eager in anticipation and
blushed with the burning joy
of an impossible possibility.
Not because God’s vision has arrived yet,
not because the Good News is fulfilled yet
but simply and entirely because it’s possible.