Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Messiness of Christmas

St. Luke’s Church, Philipsburg, NJ
The Rev. Anne E. Kitch
Christmas Eve 2019

St. Luke's Pageant 2019
Are you ready for Christmas? Our fabulous parish administrator and bookkeeper asked me this on Saturday as we were reviewing bulletins one last time. I think it surprised her when I said, Yes.  “That’s because I have let go of five things,” I told her. This is my secret—I am never going to be ready for Christmas, so at some point I stop trying and let the messiness be what it is.

Christmas is difficult. Christmas is glorious. Christmas is stressful. Christmas is about family or food or festivities. Or grief, or loneliness, or lostness. Or Jesus.

Christmas is about all these things, because Jesus is about all these things. There is no joy or trouble where we can be that Jesus is not. That’s the whole point. That’s the whole point of Jesus being fully human as well as fully divine, of the Word becoming flesh, of the Incarnation—the embodiment of God in frail humanity.

Jesus, being fully human, had a fully human birth. And this doesn’t only mean that our audacious God put the salvation of humankind into the hands of two very vulnerable human beings who were first-time parents of a newborn. Even before that, God had to count on both Mary and Joseph saying, yes. The salvation of the world depended on their faithfulness.

And while our gospels are full of what made this a Holy night—in Luke ‘s version we get angels choirs, in Matthew’s version we get a sacred star—what they don’t tell is the ordinary stuff that our pageant and Christmas cards and classic works of art leave out. Actually, a Christmas card with cheery snowmen on it may get close to being right, because the birth of Jesus was in mnay ways ordinary.

Mary and Joseph were set apart…and they were not. To begin with, they were not the only ones traveling to Bethlehem at that time. There was a government census that required everyone in Judea to travel back to their hometown in order to be registered. Everyone. So all those adult children who had created lives for themselves in some other city were on their way home. Mary and Joseph likely traveled with a caravan on the roads from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey of 90 miles up and down hilly country, and Mary was surely not the only pregnant woman around. I imagine her receiving advice and comfort from older women who had given birth before. Nor were they the only couple trying to find a place to stay in a small city that was full of travelers.

And the manger was not in a stable outback somewhere, but in a room of a family home where animals were kept nearby. And Mary, surrounded no doubt by friendly beasts, surely also had the help of a local midwife and the women in the family.

In other words, it was about community.

The extraordinary were there too, but the heavenly host of angels were not by the manger but rather shining all their glory on some shepherds out in the wilderness beyond town, doing the ordinary business of watching their flocks. They’re the ones who are told the Messiah is born and they hurry off to Bethlehem to see for themselves, finding Mary and Joseph and the baby, and telling them and all else who are there and anyone who would listen what they had learned from the angels. And everyone marvels at what the shepherd tell. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

And by the way, the magi are not in Luke’s story at all. They show up in the gospel of Matthew and not on the night when Jesus was born, but perhaps even a year later when Jesus was a young child (we hear that story on Epiphany, January 6th).

So our manger scenes and our Christmas pageants get it wrong…and get so much right.  In fact, our pageant this afternoon was exactly the kind of ordinary, loving, somewhat messy community which embodies the love of Jesus.

When we gather together, we are both human and holy. This is what it means to be a church, to be a community of God. It is to travel together, to become companions, to find places for those who are lost or lonely or hurting. To laugh and play together, to help one another, to gather together to get through hard times and to celebrate new life.

We don’t always get it right. But we are here tonight in part because we are all reaching for something more and we know that doing it together helps. Faithful walking is not the same thing as perfect fulfillment. Faithfulness includes striving and forgiveness and acceptance and renewal.

One of my favorite carols is In the Bleak Midwinter, especially verse 4:
What can I give him, poor as I am,
            if I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
            If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
            yet what I can I give him, give my heart

What can we give to Jesus, what can we give to each other, is what we can—ourselves. Welcome to the messiness of Christmas. Welcome to the glory. Welcome to one another.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Dawning love

Christmas Day

Mercy and truth have met together
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Psalm 85:10

Christmas day dawns
and with it the Light that the darkness does not overcome
because the darkness cannot grasp
or comprehend or contain
the Love that is continually coming into the world

Mary kisses her newborn child
her heart treasure-full
she ponders the mystery of this love
that lays in her lap
and escapes her grasp
to be the Light of the world

Copyright: feverpitched / 123RF Stock Photo

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Rehearsing holiness

Christmas Eve

Happy are the people who know the festal shout!
they walk, O Lord, in the light of your presence.
Psalm 89:15

The pageant rehearsal begins with the usual amount of enthusiasm as parents and teachers channel the kid energy into entrances and exits and the obligatory manger tableau with good humor. I marvel how even this preparation is a way of telling the story. Not just the story of Jesus’ birth, but the story of how God’s love radiates into the world.

I admire the costumes waiting to be tried on, and one of the parents points to the older cardboard angel wings which we no longer use, recounting when she wore those wings as a child. And I realize preparing and performing the pageant is also the story of how we are connected to the holy across generations. We are creating memories and handing down tradition and forming one another.

The time is almost here. Soon, the stars in the bright sky will look down on this truly holy assembly as they offer up a rendition of Away in the Manger that is sure to melt hearts. And Jesus will be born again.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Monday, December 23, 2019

Final turn

Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent

For God alone my soul in silence waits
Psalm 62:1

As I drive across the bridge, negotiating the traffic takes most of my attention and I can hardly spare a glance for the beauty of the river below.

I would like to stop midway. I would like to stop and take it all in: the flowing water, the reflected lights, the sense of the movement beneath the surface. I would like to be still for a moment and reverence the ancient water which has been since creation carving myriad pathways into the earth, shaping landscapes and civilizations.

I would like to pause in my Advent journey, take stock of where I have been, savor the travel, sense the movement deep beneath the surface of my soul. I am near the final turn, headed inevitably into the mystery drawing nigh. In the silence ahead, a gift waits for me. A gift that has always been waiting and has always been given and will always be.

I drive on into the night and make the turn for home.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Casting light

Saturday of the Third Week of Advent
Feast of St. Thomas

The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth for evermore.
Psalm 121:8

As we pull into the driveway it is difficult to see. The porch light has not yet been turned on. It was still daylight when we left the house on this errand and I didn’t think to turn on the light. But now as we head toward the longest night, the dark invades the late afternoon.

Later, around the dinner table we will light three candles on our Advent wreath and soon we will be lighting four. The candles are not only counting time. They are dispelling darkness. As the winter nights lengthen, we light more candles. One flame would be enough. One flame scatters the darkness. One flame reminds us that the Light is coming. The light that the darkness can never overcome.

That light is with us along all our ways, illuminating our steps, brightening daytime and nighttime alike, sending us forth and welcoming us home. That flame of love is about to be born anew, rekindled by angel choirs and shepherd watchfulness and our own hope.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Barren sustenance

Friday of the Third Week of Advent

Behold God is my helper;
It is the Lord who sustains my life.
Psalm 54:3

It is the barren trees that arrest my attention. Throughout the day, I have been drawn to bare limbs tracing paths across the sky, ice-covered twigs woven into intricate designs, shadows of branches casting patterns on a window shade.

Sometimes my heart feels bare, like naked winter branches. This is not sadness, but rather lack. Lack of inspiration, lack of engagement, lack of closeness to God. As if my heart is standing far off choosing not to get involved with the now. Even as I sit in prayer, I wonder if I can just slide by on the surface of the day, without trying too hard or going too deep. Without asking the question honestly of what God is calling me to do or be or see or ask. Or tell.

The contemplation of the bare branches is enough. Enough to remind me that their very stature is sustained by life deep within them, that what seems dead will bear fruit in due season, that even out of stumps new growth may come. Enough to remind me that regardless of my perspective, my life is rooted in the Word which spoke the world into being and is speaking still, calling me to the wonder of this season and a manger that will not remain empty.

Image by Mabel Amber, still incognito... from Pixabay

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Vulnerable strength

Thursday of the Third Week of Advent

I know every bird in the sky,
and the creatures of the fields are in my sight.
Psalm 50:11

The wind pummels the house, bitter and insistent. And on a bare branch outside my window a small bird holds fast. The early morning is too dark for me to see her colors and I cannot yet hear her voice. It is extraordinary to me that she remains perched in the midst of such fury. She is safe inside a tumult that would batter me to the ground.
I marvel that her vulnerable body contains such strength, and I marvel at the source of her strength. She is beloved of God, known to the Creator, counted amongst the cherished.

The Word too is born vulnerable, coming into the world small and human and exposed. And the Word holds fast and the darkness does not overcome it.

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay