Cradle the Child

Luke 2:1-20 – Christmas Eve/Day – for December 24/25, 2011

“…and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger…” (Luke 2:16)

What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?

Hey! Let me answer the song’s question. Right now, I’m holding the child in my hand . . .

Mary’s child has a shock of brown hair and, with eyes closed, is clearly sleeping. I like his snug blue coat with the collar protecting his chest. I delight in the hint of tummy above the clean white sheet warming his legs and feet. He’s fair-skinned, sports a pug nose and—like infants often do—his tiny, tiny fists are closed tight while he slumbers.

See . . . I know what child this is.

It’s baby Jesus in ceramic form, hand-painted by my mother, given to my wife and me on our first married (and merry) Christmas together. Thus I’m confident of how old Jesus is (he turned twenty-seven this year). Thus I’m confident of what he wore—and always wears—to keep cozy in the hay: a cute blue jacket. Thus, though I’m less confident the “angels greet with anthems sweet,” I can prove Mom did make Baby Jesus. Her initials—a slightly uneven FP—are scrawled on the hollow backside of the baby.

Proof! Exactly what Baby Jesus looked like...Yeah! I know about this child, laid to rest, and center stage on my mantel every year. While he rests, the other ceramic creations surround him: the stoic shepherds, the tall, thin magi, the calm camels and—of course—Joseph & Mary. And let me not forget the solitary angel Mom painted, wings spread . . . and in my imagination a bit exhausted from all the anthems sung in the fields.

This is my nativity. A Christmas tableau. The manger scene. An indoor putz (as my wife’s Moravian tradition might say). Joseph and Mary and their child, forever fixed in ceramic.

Well, maybe not forever. A few stalwart characters have been patched with a smidgen of glue. Out cats roam the fields where shepherds watch, after all. And we display the putz high on a mantel, with hard bricks below that won’t cushion accidental leaps of faith.

In my hand, I cradle the Baby Jesus Mom made for us. How much I enjoy displaying it every year during Christmas. And yet, isn’t this little pug-nosed, blue-coated infant a lie?

Long, long ago, in my first wide-eyed year of seminary, I read these words from theologian James M. Gustafson: “The proper stance of the Christian community in its ethical reflection is self-criticism and repentance, not pride and self-aggrandizement.” Whoa. That throttles Christmas cheer in this most wonderful time of the year. Gustafson’s words cause me to study the ceramic child in my palm and declare, you are way too aggrandizing, little fella. And so are Santa and those reindeer and Black Friday and eggnog and the zillions of catalogs depicting perfect people and perfect gifts that have burdened my mailbox since Halloween. Christmas has become the season of self-aggrandizement. Continue reading →

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Lingers in the Shadows

Luke 1:26-38 – 4th Sunday of Advent – for December 18, 2011

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God…” (Luke 1:26)

Visiting the old man had been easier.

Maybe it was because The Messenger chose a sanctuary for the encounter. The whole world is holy, but still, with the silence and candles, the sacred space enhanced the announcement he prepared for Zechariah.

Advent’s Fourth Word: ANGEL

There’s this, too: maybe Zechariah—honestly humble and intentionally kind by all accounts—felt he deserved a break. Thought God should do a deed or two for him. Yes, The Messenger mused, the old man was easy. Not once in the sanctuary conversation did he have to consult his notes or raise his voice or make an unnecessary promise. And it didn’t surprise The Messenger when Elizabeth’s elderly husband couldn’t mutter a word afterwards. Awe can do that. The Messenger had seen it before with humans—the stupor, the incoherent explanations, the babbling about a dream.

Wings of desire...

And yet now this: this girl, this woman. Mary is both and neither. He studies her from the shadows; he is alert, prepared and he never hesitated when told he would be her witness. It’s his job, after all. He’s done it before, and hopes he’ll continue the work for a long time. The Messenger relishes playing the muse, the voice, the dream, the whisper, the unexpected idea, the rush of wind, the stillness of night, the surge of adrenalin, the calm of conviction, the best hope and last chance.

He didn’t ask why her or why now. Well above his pay grade, thank you very much.

Still he lingers in the shadows, leaning against the wall, almost as if hiding. As if he’s more afraid and less confident. This surprises him. Continue reading →

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Am I Not Entering Holy Ground?

Did my red socks display jolly Santas, lush Christmas trees or singing angels?

I don’t remember. I’ve worn and worn out many festive socks over the years.

Toes are getting a bit thin from these "veteran" socks!

Advent’s Third Word: WITNESS!

But I recall the snow, my December breath adrift like a miniature cloud, the long tramp from the driveway to their house. An hour or so outside of Madison, Wisconsin, the brittle night air contains the smell of cattle from the barn as my footsteps crunch on the icy path leading to the front door.

I also don’t remember who answered. His teenaged daughter? His wife? His brother from the next farm over?

“I’m Larry,” I say. “I had called and asked–”

“Yes, of course, come inside before you freeze. We’re glad you came.”

I entered a home I’d never been to before, and shook the hand of a stranger. In my faulty memory I can’t be sure if the friendly hand grasping mine was the daughter, wife or brother, but I certainly felt welcomed. Other family members voiced their greetings. An unseen Christmas tree cast splinters of red and green light against the wall. Evidence of baking, maybe cookies, teased my nose.

Someone offered to take my coat. Then, after a cleared throat, one of my greeters quietly asked, “Could you take your shoes off?”

They gestured toward the entryway floor. Work boots, clogs, running shoes and other footwear rested on a throw rug. I shrugged off my shoes and added them to the mix. Especially in a Midwest winter, a season of mud and snow and ice, this wasn’t unusual. Removing shoes helped in the battle for a clean house.

With my Advent/Christmas socks obvious, I padded into the living room, accompanied by members of the family. Everyone glanced at my feet, at those Santas or singing angels prancing against a bright red background. A Christmas tree anchored a corner, across from the fireplace. There was a sofa, several chairs and a hospital bed.

His wife said to me, eyes unblinking, voice strong, “This is John. He’s so looking forward to meeting you.” Continue reading →

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