There is a fascinating week of Kwanzaa, whose traditions of long leisurely meals where you talk about tradition, ancestors, culture, and dreams, seems about as Christian a way to end one year and bring in the next as anything I could concoct. And then I ponder the way New Year’s is a huge deal in largely African-American churches – all because of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Freedom – not American-style freedom so much as that Gospel freedom Paul envisions in Galatians: that’ll preach.
I think though I will devote my sermon to the Gospel text, Luke 2:22-40, and ruminate on Jesus’ very early life. For another project I’ve been reflecting on this – and so I share what I have with you:
What was Jesus’ very early life like, his first few days and weeks? We love the carol which suggests “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Surely he cried. We should hope he cried. He became one with all of us who cry. Babies cry, and we may be grateful, as that sound is the sign of life, vitality, a protest against being so rudely removed from the warm safety of the womb, a declaration to the world that “I have arrived” – and “something’s wrong.” As an adult, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, over the death of his friend Lazarus, and he surely still weeps over us. His name, after all, is a cry, yeshua meaning “Lord, help!”
Mary nursed him, rocked him, whispered and sang to him. Exhausted like all mothers, she fought through the weariness. Did she suffer any postpartum depression? There were visits. The shepherds flocked toward his manger, perplexed and overstimulated by what they swore they’d seen and heard out in the fields, angels trumpeting and singing. The magi appeared in course, right away or months later, we have no way of knowing – just as we don’t know how many of them made the trek from Persia or Arabia or wherever. We guess three, since they three gifts; but artists have depicted four, or seven, or a dozen.
Mary and Joseph, of course, were Bible people, thoroughly Jewish, and their Jewishness shaped the small, beautiful and thus expansive world Jesus first glimpsed in his first days. And so Mary, on cue, did as all Jewish mothers did: she and her family made the arduous journey to Jerusalem for her “purification.” Catholic tradition and even Protestants’ best hunches make us shrug, wondering why she of all mothers would need to be purified. But having just borne God’s own son, she stuck to the law, seeking to be as pure and holy as possible in God’s eyes – perhaps akin to the way Jesus, God in the flesh, holiest of the holy, submitted to Baptism. And as pious, observant Jews, hardly done with the Torah now that Jesus has arrived, they offered up a couple of sacrificial birds on the altar.
And then, being diligent in faith, Mary and Joseph delivered their son to the priest for circumcision, which for them was a non-negotiable act of obedience and devotion to God. I wonder if Mary felt her first pangs of separation when she handed her infant son over to a priest she’d never met, and if she shivered a bit when she heard his outcry when the knife cut into his flawless flesh. Another unexpected pain was about to hit her.
Seemingly by chance, Mary and Joseph bump into an old man named Simeon. And then a woman named Anna who had been a widow for eighty four years. The aged inevitably turn and gaze at an infant, as if the chances to glimpse such precious beauty are numbered. Or was he somehow, even if unwittingly, dispatched there by God? “It happened that there was a man.” Chance, maybe. But then verse 27 exposes what even he may not have known – that he was “led by the Spirit.” This “upright and devout” one was not alone in “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). But some mystical disclosure had come to this man – that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. Do mothers today encounter various older people who figure in profound and surprising ways into the unfolding drama of their children’s lives? Does God send such people into our orbit to shape the puzzled parents’ new world?
Simeon took the child. Mary would forever be handing her child over to the hopes of others. His prayer over the child must have struck Mary and Joseph dumb. “Now let your servant depart in peace,” for this Messiah (even in infancy) had come, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for Israel.” We deploy extravagant hyperbole when speaking of a newborn, but this is over the top, outrageous, either divinely inspired or sheer craziness.
Would that he had stopped with his blessing. In somber tones, Simeon spoke directly to Mary: “Behold, he is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel… A sword will pass through your own soul.” These densely framed words require considerable exegesis, and much pondering from Mary. His destiny involves the “fall and rise” of God’s people. The order should puzzle us. We speak of the “rise and fall” of, let’s say, the Roman Empire, a British dynasty, or a famous politician. With Jesus, as Scripture has tutored us to expect, turns everything upside down. Those drawn into the wake of this child will learn that you fall before you rise, you get emptied of your own goodness before you are filled with the mercy – and the same happens with God’s church, rising like a phoenix only after suffering the worst persecution.
The pattern will be Jesus’ own. He will fall, flagellated by the soldiers, then beneath his own cross, and finally crushed by death itself, only then to rise, and to reign. This fall will indeed pierce Mary’s heart. Simeon was right: she would barely be able to stand at the foot of the cross, trying to avert her gaze but not being able to do so from the sight of the lifeblood she had given him draining out of his precious, pure body. Whose heart was more crushed than hers? Who felt the piercing of the nails and the spear more than his mother? Who, even after his resurrection and ascension, felt the pangs of missing him more than his holy mother?
We may pause and consider prophecies, most of them surely unintended, that are uttered over our children. Sizing up mom and dad, the doctor says He’ll be a tall one! Or as a premie beats the odds and exhibits surprising growth, the nurse says She’s a fighter! Or the too-young mother in labor and delivery, with no family hovering nearby, the obstetrician shrugs and hangs her head: That one is already behind the eight ball. I have vague recollections of overhearing awful words in my own house growing up – that when my older sister was born, they had really wanted a boy. So I was their boy! and she was not – a terrible prophecy.
Were there prophecies you’ve overheard about yourself? Some are cute, but loaded. We got Duke bibs and socks for our wee ones – so did they feel they failed to fulfill their promise when they didn’t go there? Some prophetic messages that impact our children are entirely unnoticed and unspoken. Like parental anxiety – over what to do with a little one, or over how terribly scary the world is out there.
And then we have (in Matthew… which Jesus won’t mind me jumping to) the slaughter of the Innocents. The horror – as there is always horror in the world, and perhaps especially when we get close to the holy and good. Herod recoiled against this small, humble birth just 6 miles from his palace – maybe like that haunting moment in Peter Jackson’s film version of “The Lord of the Rings.” The wicked “eye of Sauron,” atop a high tower, casts its evil beam over the land, probing, ruling, intimidating, always watching for signs of good to be dealt with.
Then that holy hobbit, Frodo, put on the ring of power – and the eye was seized with some paroxysm of envy and terror, jerking suddenly in Frodo’s direction, far away. Notorious for his paranoia, famously feeling threatened by and then killing members of his own family, Herod flew into what for him was a typical rage, ordering the cruel slaughter of all male boys under the age of two in his realm. The arrival of the Christ child was no security blanket to shelter the people from harm. On the contrary, his advent actually brought on intense sorrow, such is the ferocious kneejerk retaliation of evil in our broken world against the good that would bring life – back then, and throughout history. The laments, the shrieks of the mothers of Judea have echoed through time. If we listen, we can still hear them, and all mothers who have flailed and strained and crumpled to the ground in sheer agony as they have witnessed brutal violence against their children. A mother wrenched from her small son in Auschwitz, forced to watch with the rest of the horrified crowd as he was dangled by a rope around his neck. A man in the crowd asked, “For God’s sake, where is God?” Elie Wiesel, who was there, said he heard a voice answer, “Where is he? This is where – hanging here from this gallows.”
Of course, thanks to a good angel who had warned Joseph, the infant Jesus has been spirited away to Egypt. By stealth the holy family fled by night. Legend has it that lions and leopards in the wilderness bowed their heads and wagged their tails in homage; palm trees bent low to provide food for them; two thieves pounced on them, but then relented when Mary wept – the same robbers who were crucified next to Jesus thirty years later. The symbolism of the story would not have been lost on Jews of Jesus day or careful Bible readers today. This one, who has come to be the deliverance of the people, descends to Egypt, as Joseph and his brothers had centuries earlier, only to return in peace to the land of promise.
Still in his infancy, Jesus is a refugee, joining the ranks of countless throngs of people pushed out of their homelands, in desperate flight to survive grisly armies and rulers. I have known Jews who managed to slip out of Europe and elude the Nazis murderers; a neighbor of mine was hidden in a potato sack and thrown onto the back of a truck by her parents, whom she never saw again. Refugee camps dot the globe. Particularly haunting are those camps in the land of Israel to which Jesus came. In his birthplace of Bethlehem, camps like Dheisheh and Aida have been the home for thousands of Palestinians expelled from their homes, and living in coarse conditions, for generations now since the war in 1948.
After that quick visit to Jerusalem for purification and circumcision, the Bible tells us nothing at all about Jesus’ childhood until he is twelve years old – beyond the scope of what we’re attempting in this book. But that moment is instructive. The holy family made their way to Jerusalem as part of a caravan of travelers from Nazareth to the high festival days in Jerusalem. Headed for home, somehow Jesus got misplaced, and his parents couldn’t locate him for three days. Once they did, Mary upbraided him: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously” (Luke 2:48). Indeed. Even they are learning what all religiously seriously parents learn: you do not know what God is calling your child to become.
We imagine Jesus as some prodigy, outsmarting the smart, teaching the brilliant. But if you read the text closely, it's a dialogue, and Jesus is asking questions more than spouting theology. A commendable way to begin a year...
The images are paintings of the life of Christ by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.