1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
We continue to celebrate Christ’s coming as we celebrate the mystery of God come as a human child. Our Gospel gives us a small window into a boy who is both God and human, without separation and without confusion. Luke is the only Gospel to even attempt to give us a glimpse of what a God-human child was like. What strikes me about this glimpse into Jesus’ childhood and into the holy family is that it shows family as relatively unimportant, yet valued. Jesus both says that his family his parents are not the center of his existence yet his place is with them even though the family is not its own center. It was this re-orientation of life I was pointing to when, in Advent, I questioned the domestication of God’ coming as a child. I did so because this view of God’s coming hides how God coming as a child redefines everything. God comes and gives a new and true center, the true center of family, of marriage, and of friendship and of all social relations is revealed. Christ coming gives to us our life’s orientation as a re-orientation. Everything is left the same and yet if we see and act out the truth nothing is the same.
What do we want of life? What do we work towards in our lives? So much competes for our attention and for priority. How do we discern or know how to prioritize: Family career, and other common expectations that are placed upon us? I think most of us have felt in one-way or another the pressure to take up family or career or both as the central concern of life. There are though other things, things we may find more congenial, and compete for that central position, whether it is seeking social justice and reform, or art or science and philosophy. In some sense the answer to how to make sense of all the competing priorities is already here right in front of us in this very act of gathering around ancient texts and mystical supper nexus of purposes, around ancient texts and a mystical meal. It is here where everything finds its meaning and center. Our coming here makes the difference; it offers us the orientation we seek.
Our brother Saint Paul claims so in our Colossians passage, but his exhortation would indicate that this difference has a lot to do with what we do with our faith, with the incarnation, with our baptism and being given the Spirit. In a sense Paul suggests that the impact of the birth of Christ can either be ignored or allowed to disrupt, displace and reorganize our life and the world.
Paul tells us we must take what we have been given. We as those who by having been joined with Christ must now live according to this reality. These are not things that necessarily simply well up from within us but are things we put on. Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, are things we put on like a nice dress or suit. Think with me about how a favorite shirt, or skirt, or new outfit can make you feel different. How a costume you put on can make you feel and act other than you would normally. Kate has countless stories of how as a costumer her costumes have made the difference for actors in personifying the character they played in a play. What we wear affects us and those around us, it is why police and soldiers wear uniforms, why royalty have special clothing for ceremonial events, why clergy wear robes. Love, compassion etc. come from outside ourselves come from Christ and we are to wear them like cloths that make us feel and act differently. The transformation comes by what we do with the new source of our life in Chris. Love doesn’t simply happen because we are members of the body of Christ, part of the Church (a mistaken view many non-Christians, or those former Christians hurt by the church have). Rather love is available to us like a piece of clothing that we can chose to wear or not. But not only are we to clothe our selves but we are to let the peace of Christ and the word of Christ rule and dwell in us. If we want to know what our priorities are we need to look no further: What rules and dwells in us? What airs do we in fact put on? Are they Christ and the qualities and characteristics of Christ?
But why this exhortation now, at Christmas time? How does Christmas tell us how to live, and what is to be our center? The nativity icon shows a domesticity and family in tension. The action of the icon takes place on the edges, yet all the action relates to the center, which is the Christ child. Our Gospel passage shows though that the family endures even after this does so in tension. Jesus is not just any child; Luke has Jesus already knowing that he is different that his calling is different that his family is not a “normal” family. Joseph and Mary should not have been surprised that he stayed in the Temple and disputes with the Elders. Jesus’ words show us that the family’s center is contradictorily outside the family.
This is what we can take from the Gospel and the entire Christmas story: Mary and Joseph find themselves with the same familial responsibilities but those responsibilities and ties no longer serve the family. They are to serve God and God in Christ slowly transforming the world through the incarnation. No longer are they simply being apart of perpetuating the created yet fallen order of things. Now the family this holy family, has become centered on God’s purposes for a new creation. God has entered creation to transform it that all things may find and know their true center.
The icon of the Nativity shows that this disrupts what we consider normal. The incarnation creates puzzlement and tension as we attempt to live out our lives in a world changed and yet much the same. Joseph and Mary at times resisted this transformation and our world and we resist this as well. See Mary and Joseph coming back with all their relatives from the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem and at the Temple, only to discover at some point on their journey that surprisingly and frighteningly Jesus has not come with them. Hear the murmur among the relatives,..”Oh no, we thought Jesus was with Uncle so and so…” “…Oh no, I though he was with you!” So, in a panic they rush back to Jerusalem to search hoping for the best fearing the worst. And then they find Jesus not only not wandering around lost but quite undisturbed by his separation from them. There he is in the temple arguing with the elder’s a scribes. They scold him as any parent has whose child wanders off and gives them a scare. Jesus however, responds with a puzzling confidence and near defiance, they should not have been worried and should have known where he was. Jesus is to be in the presence and about the business of his Father, Mary and Joseph’s Father our Father. Jesus returns with them but Mary and Joseph are left to puzzle over Jesus’ words, the claim that he and their family are not the center but God and God’s new purposes.
This disruption and re-orientation we see in this story had already begun back on the night of Christ birth, back even at the conception of Christ, and Joseph was ready to quietly divorce Mary. The family has become centered on God transforming the world by entering into it and joining himself with creation by becoming human. Yet, Christmas is not just the story of what happened but is the exemplary story of what has happened and is happening since God became human. This disruption the tensions, the centering everything on Christ and God’s acts shows us our new center, the real reason for anything and everything we do. We do not have to abandon art or academic disciplines or activism or family or career but none of these things should remain, as that thing that orients all of life- Christ is the center the reason for everything, and everything is transformed by the incarnation. We are to recognize as Mary and Joseph were continually reminded that whom we are and what we do is to be centered on what God begun and continues to do in the birth and life and death and resurrection of Christ. What we see visually displayed in the icon of the nativity not only happened to Mary and Joseph and their family but happens to all of us and everything we do and are, because of the incarnation. All we can do is attempt to ignore it or embrace it, but tensions will be there the confusion the puzzlement, our struggle to find our priorities. Yet if we hear Jesus and Paul we can find all of this as an aspect of our transformation as we put on Christ and find Christ ruling in our hearts.
So what Paul describes for us is how who we are and what join ourselves or what we do is all to be centered on the transformative liberating and salvific work that began when God came as a human child some 2000 years ago. Everything we are and do, the communities that claim that we join or us are all to find their center in Christ. So, that the rule and peace of God may dwell and grow in the world, just as Christ grew in wisdom and favor in the midst of his family centered on God’s purposes. This is our transformation as followers of Christ who remain as citizen, sons and daughter, mother and father, aunts and uncle, friends, artists, activists, office workers etc.. The place that troubles these relationships is their true center this is our hope; this is the meaning of the church. The church fulfils its purpose when it is the community that has Christ and nothing else as its center, when it lives according to Paul’s words in Colossians. The church is represented by the mystery of the nativity. Take comfort knowing that what gives meaning to life and all we do is the transforming of the world through God become human as Jesus Christ. God has joined God’s self with creation to reveal the center of everything, and so that all the world and we may know intimately what centers us and gives us our ultimate meaning. The source of all things has become one with us that we may know the one in whom we move and have our being.