First Sunday after Christmas
When Adam was about 4 or 5 years old, one of our favorite father and son traditions was to get up early and have breakfast at a local diner—Adam used to call it “pancake day”. Having done all our preparation for Christmas one year, Adam and I took some time out for a breakfast at this favorite diner. At the booth next to us was a family of three—a little girl, her father, and mother. The topic of their conversation was the impending birth of a new child into this family. The mother was obviously pregnant and the little girl’s mouth was going 90 miles an hour regarding this soon-to-be addition to the family.
The father asked the little girl if she was excited about having a new baby in the house. She quickly answered yes. He then asked her an interesting question. He asked if she had a choice between a brother and sister which would she choose? The father barely finished asking the question when she shouted “a brother, a brother. I want a brother.” Curious as to why, the father probed further. He asked her to think of all the little boys in her class at school. Then he asked which little boy would she most like her brother to be like? There was a long, protracted silence. It was deadening. This little girl who had been a bundle of energy in answering the other questions seemed to be stopped cold by that one. She finally looked quite seriously at her father and said, “I think I want a sister.”
You see, having a brother was an abstract idea for that little girl. She was thinking about all the fairy tale versions of a brother, not the living day-in and day- out, fleshy side of having a brother. When looked at that way her perspective changed.
So, how about us? How well do we deal with the abstract vs. the concrete in our faith? Advent is over and Christmas is here. We’ve been waiting for Christ to arrive and now Christ is here! So, what’s the difference? What’s the difference between the version we had before the birth of Jesus and the one we have now? Are you closer to the little girl’s abstract version or a more realistic one? Are you somewhere in between? I think that may be one of the most important issues for us in this time. What version of Christ do we live with on a daily basis?
We look at the manger and we tend to forget that Jesus was a baby. The baby Jesus did all the things babies do. And not only that, as a commentator once said, “we can be sure that the stable the baby was born in did not in any way mirror the Hallmark version. You know – fresh clean straw, a crib-like manger, freshly groomed animals who are perfectly still and quiet and almost worshipping this new arrival, with musicians playing harps nearby. To the contrary, I think it’s easier to envision those first few days as they were more likely to have actually been. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Mary and Joseph were probably hard pressed to regard their newborn son, whom they were trying to make happy and keep fed and clean, as anything other than fully human. You have to wonder if Mary and Joseph wouldn’t have agreed with Mark Twain’s observation that “a soiled baby, with a neglected nose, cannot be regarded as a thing of beauty.”
That other version, the Hallmark version, is the abstract version that the little girl was living in. It’s another matter all-together when we put names and faces into the picture. The Hallmark setting helps us escape a reality that leads to some troubling questions – that the savior of the world came to us powerless and in abject poverty. Not only with no material possessions, but as an infant, completely at the mercy of the world around him.
We can let the marketing of Christmas carry us away into a fairy tale version of Christ that leaves us with a baby that was a baby for one night, and not an infant born into a hostile world with nothing except ordinary loving parents to guide him through an extraordinary life. It’s as if he was born and then became an adult instantly. But rest assured it did not happen that way. Jesus grew up like every child. And I actually think it does my faith good to believe that Jesus probably lived through all the moral experiences that I have lived through. That’s what John is saying today in our Gospel reading.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us” is an abstract passage that boils down to this. Jesus came to be one of us. To live with us. To live like us. And to make it clear that God loves and has blessed the condition of being human. It reminds us, as Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, that we are no longer slaves but children of God, and if God’s children then also heirs. It reminds us that all children – all people – are beloved of God. And, of course, if we are reminded of that fact, then we cannot escape the questions the inevitably come from it, which deal directly with how we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, are called to live our lives and to treat other people. Essentially, it leads us to challenge how we choose to show honor and respect to others in a way that acknowledges the presence of the divine in each person we meet.
That father in the restaurant was profound in asking his daughter to think of faces and people when deciding who she would like as her brother. And it’s a good idea for us to challenge the kind of faith we’re living into from time to time. Are we living a Hallmark faith or one that acknowledges the reality of what God did in the person of Jesus Christ? What faces and names do we see as our sisters and brothers? Do we ever ask ourselves if faces that look different from ours or names that are unfamiliar to us are, in fact, our sisters and brothers? Or are we too trapped in and by the abstract version of our faith?
The Hallmark version of Christmas is beautiful, don’t get me wrong. The lights, and music, and smells. The innocence of children dressed as angels and shepherds and sheep speaks to the love and joy that is inherent in the human heart. But eventually, we need to incorporate a wider vision of life into our understanding of God and how God works in the world. And we do that by being open to the experience of knowing God in the people God sends to us and the people to whom we are sent in God’s name. Because while God may sometimes seem far away or only accessible in sacred places and at sacred times, the truth is, seeing God and encountering Christ is as close to you and as present with you as the person you meet walking along the street . . . or the one you meet in the booth next to you in a diner.