Based on Matthew 1: 18-25
On Thursday night, I drove Fiona up to Georgetown to ride the historic train for a special event they called, Santa’s Lighted Forest. In retrospect, that is exactly what it was; a train ride through a forest decorated with lights featuring a visit from Santa on the train. In retrospect, there is no reason we should have been disappointed that we experienced exactly what was described in the name, but somewhere along the way a mythical adventure grew in our minds. By the end of our dreaming, Fiona and I had decided that the train would take us to a magical village where we would meet Santa and go shopping and possibly ride reindeer.
Instead of riding reindeer through a magical village with Santa, we were seated at a small table with a basket of cheese sticks and baby carrots as the train went about 40 minutes in one direction before coming to a stop and going about 40 minutes back to the station. The lights were nice when we saw them the first time on the way to our dead-end destination, and the lights were still nice when we saw them the second time on the way back to the station. Santa did come to see us on the train and there was free hot cocoa and cookies handed out next to the parking, but it was far from the narrative we had created and the experience we had expected.
With only four more days until Christmas Day we find ourselves in the home stretch of a season of mail ordered, decorative busy-ness. A final countdown marked with wrapping, running and planning to make sure the Christmas holiday is whatever we wish it to be or think it should be; generally, a recipe with a base of memorable and a dash of magical.
Stay seated because this is not the part of the message where we shift into a shame storm caused by some notion of purity where we have forgotten the reason for the season. Nor is it a blame game around sacrificing our values to the idols of consumerism. The reality is Christmas was many things before Christianity and it continues to be many things around Christianity. In practice, it is a mix of many celebrations at once; some problematic and others promising. Intentional time with family, thoughtful gifts exchanged with care, generosity shown through toy drives and food collections. Sure, the mantra of Christmas could lose its faithful chant of consumerism, but Christmas as a season also creates a cultural momentum in the direction of Light born anew in the world.
The challenge is that celebrating an ethereal occurrence, such as Light being born anew in the world, is an almost impossible task. This one day honoring the birth of Christ into the world; remembered in a star shining in the East, a baby in a manger and a diverse guest list arriving to witness the prophetic event. The giving of beautifully wrapped gifts may fall short, but if we are honest so will participation in a customary Christmas Eve Service. Let’s just say when Silent Night has been sung and the crowd has gone home, it isn’t the expectant arrival of Christ into the world that keeps our children are up all night.
The excitement bound up in Christmas is definitely around what we may receive. A glamorized portrayal of what it means to be alive. Neither in the sacred remembrance of Christ’s birth do we find spiritual reassurance for the expectation of a humble celebration. Each story leading up to and during Christmas incorporates the reception of blatant divine signs by unexpectant people; a prophesy, a star and an angel. Each element foretelling of an experience of clear messages regarding what to do when and how to go about doing it after arriving wherever we are told to go.
Like Mary’s sacred visitation in Luke last week, this week we witness the arrival of an angelic messenger for Joseph in Matthew. This is helpful not only to Joseph but also to us today because before this divine intervention Joseph was going to really mess things up. In the midst of introducing who Jesus will be and what role Joseph is to play in the life of Jesus, Matthew inserts a dialogue through which Joseph receives some very specific instructions about what his next steps should be; marry Mary, adopt her son and name him Jesus. And, after the angel delivering these instructions has long been gone, it is Joseph’s life in the story that unfolds that articulates the yes to the invitation an angel had once given.
There is more to the story, but the angel is the fancy part, the flashy event that catches our attention. It triggers our adrenaline and leaves an after taste of lament for the absence of such a firework show of our own. Where is our angel? Our special instructions for this holy life we too are called to live? Angels seem to visit everyone else in this Christmas narrative, why not us?
Obviously, I don’t know the answer for the absence of our own American Doll angels, manufactured with a message all our own. I do wonder, however, if it is Joseph’s yes to his angel that relinquishes us from such a biblical de ja vu. Our yes, I imagine, is not a one-word response to an individual invitation from a personalized angel but a corporate witness in the world of our understanding of who Jesus was and who Christ is today. It is the promise of God-with-us and the responsibility that carries when salvation is rightfully shifted from spiritual Darwinism to an ongoing communal transformation.
The “yes” Joseph lives in response to the angel opens the door for Jesus in the world, but it is Jesus who opens the door for each and every one of us. As such, just as Joseph must decide if he will quietly dismiss Mary, so too do we as a community of worship and action decide if we will dismiss Christ in such a way as this. A quiet way, a way that boxes and wraps, dilutes and deserts, the Jesus described in Matthew. Matthew describes a Jesus who fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14; a Jesus who lives a life of risk and is known for his unpredictable behavior. A Jesus who arrives as a response to a corporate sin offering a political salvation. A Jesus who upsets everyone on all sides until the only option is to quiet his message with shouts to have him murdered. And, perhaps this Jesus is a bit disappointing because the Jesus in Matthew isn’t the Jesus we tend to know at all, or even want to hang out with. This Jesus does not deliver personal salvation to good boys and girls one day of the year. Nor is his role to rescue you and me from the discomfort of being human, or the pain of being mortal.
Like a scene out of The Nightmare Before Christmas, the Jesus that arrives in Matthew is much less fun, much less exciting, than perhaps the story we have built up in our head. This Jesus has us digging in the depths of spiritual mines, digging for the gems of a corporate salvation. This Jesus expects us to untangle from the web of global violence and to live within the contentment of enough. This Jesus expects us to hang out with people we don’t like and to love people who may not deserve it. This Jesus expects us to identify when we have been wrong so that we can understand the way in which Christ is right. This is a Jesus that I would guess doesn’t really care, if we put candles on a cake and sing to him in celebration of his birth one morning a year. This is a Jesus that cares much less about being a reason for a season and much more about a pathway to earthly salvation for the lonely, the poor, the marginalized.
This may not be the event we imagined participating in when we prepared for Christmas, but following Jesus cannot be defined by any one event. Following Jesus is a way in which we live a yes to the invitation of Christ to push the boundaries of hospitality, the rules of generosity and, ultimately, the implementation of the Law as it is discerned through the blurry vision of Love. Perhaps, we should let Christmas be what it was before we claimed it, and what it is now that we’ve again “lost” it; a secular holiday to celebrate giving gifts and other tangible tasty traditions. Let us be the people who hold on to the momentum that it born out of Christmas; living lives for the purpose of bringing peace, light, joy and love to the World. Let us be the people who rescue Jesus from the box of a Season, and who share Christ’s light everyday in the world.