In Between Times

I wonder . . . what Christmas do you remember?

No, no, no – I’m not talking about when you were a kid and there was that special toy or the year you were ten and skated in New York’s Rockefeller Center and the night was magical or when you surprised “Santa” near the tree as he (er, your father, brother, uncle) munched on the peanut butter cookies you left while putting a pony under the tree.

No childhood memories, please.

Be a card-carrying adult about it, long past the so-called magic time. After cynicism and weariness arrived . . . and enthusiasm and innocence left the building a decade or more ago. And yet, you still felt Christmas’ deepest meanings…

This is one for me . . . as I started working at my last church, I was leaving a job as a hospice chaplain. The congregation had an early and late Christmas Eve service. But I promised one hospice patient I’d visit her that night . . . and so I drove to her home between the two celebrations. Joy to the World echoed for me. Laughter still resonated from a Christmas Eve children’s sermon. And there was the exhaustion of the season. However, for a few moments, with a mother who was dying and a daughter who cared for her, I sat in a quiet dark house. We prayed. We swapped long ago family memories. I became, in the season of wonderment, I silent holder of hands and whisperer of God’s forever good news. Unto us a child is born, but there is still dying and death. And, with dying and death, there is still a silent night, a holy night, a time and place of embracing others.

I’ll always remember that night. And what of you . . .?

Simeon’s Whisper

Luke 2:22-40 – 1st Sunday of Christmas – for January 1, 2012

“And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” (Luke 2:33)

How will you spend Christmas?

Of course, my question is a two-edged sword.

Christmas. Spending.

Christmas time brings out some of our worst questions. If someone gives you a gift of a certain “value,” then shouldn’t you give him or her a gift of equal worth? If you make up a Christmas list, do you have it as easy as Santa’s “naughty” and “nice?” Or do you have to pro-rate family and friends, creating a graduated scale of who-gets-what based on who you:

Like the most . . . Want to impress the most . . . Have guilt about . . . Feel warm & fuzzy or cold & sandpapery about . . .

Choose. Quick! The shopping days zoom by more quickly than Rudolph and the other hoofed wonders on a clear night.

My ceramic Joseph & Mary look this way at the manger...and maybe it's close to how they looked before Simeon mentioned that "sword."

Oh, the many variations of obligation. Don’t some stores need us to shop because this time of the year represents such a high percentage of their annual profit? I remember, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, that a not-so-subtle message from our political leadership was to . . . shop! Scurrying to the nearest mall after a horrific attack on our country will show them we’re a people of courage. Really? And shop-shop-shopping during every Christmas pre and post sale reassures store owners how much we care about their year-end bottom line. Right, sure.

The sword cuts both ways.

In Luke, eight days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph head for the temple to fulfill their Jewish obligations for a newborn. There a fellow named Simeon—who is never described by any official temple title, but as simply “righteous and devout”—takes the baby Jesus into his arms and says,

This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too. (Luke 2:34-35)

Wasn’t that happy news for Joseph and Mary! Thanks Simeon. What a gift! And yet, with all the impossibility of knowing any actual-factual details about the time and events of Jesus’ birth, Simeon’s whispered temple words are a worthy gift for us to remember. Whoever Simeon was, whether a real memory or an invention of Luke, I’m forever challenged by his role in this sacred story.

How will you spend Christmas? Continue reading →

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 →