Text: Luke 2:21-39
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes—
Some have got broken—and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away…
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are…
To those who have seen The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
I thought of these selections from W. H. Auden’s poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio as I contemplated this weekend when we take a deep breath between Christmas tree and New Year’s—a brief respite before another celebration and then, hopefully, back to normal. And I thought of these lines as I read Luke’s account of the events that took place just after the birth of Jesus—what must have felt like to Mary and Joseph the “back to normal” part. Paul Harvey used to talk about being “right back” with “the rest of the story.” And so, this morning, I want to pick up with “the rest of the story”—the part of the story where Mary and Joseph get on with the business of raising their newborn.
The Christmas birth narratives appear, as you know, in only Matthew and Luke. We can thank Luke for “no room at the inn” and the manger, the star, and shepherds. Matthew is the one who tells about Herod and the wise men, the slaughter of the innocent, and the flight to Egypt. Luke includes in his birth narrative the context of the temple where John the Baptist’s father and Jesus’ uncle, Zechariah, is one of the high priests. Matthew weaves his story around the figure of Herod; who, fearing any challenge to his authority, sets out to kill the newborn babe.
Both Gospel stories are, in their own way, counter to the prevailing script of how things are supposed to be. Both stories describe one who comes to challenge the Roman dominated and corrupt temple religion as well as to save the people from the Roman military oppressors. Luke’s birth story focuses on the one who will redeem the religious world, and Matthew describes one who will deliver the people from political and economic slavery. In the end they both describe the coming of the prophet, preacher, and teacher named Jesus of Nazareth – a leader who will disrupt the order of business as usual.
While the birth parents, Mary and Joseph are mentioned throughout both narratives, neither of the gospel writers give very much attention to what Mary and Joseph were thinking or feeling as the actual birth takes place. Luke pays more attention to Mary than he does Joseph, but even so he mentions her casually noting simply that, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” It wasn’t until eight days later in the story that we get any hint of what Mary and Joseph were thinking and planning as new parents; that we get the story according to Mary and Joseph.
First we know that despite angelic enunciations, birthing drama, and political maneuverings, Mary and Joseph began their lives with Jesus following the Law of Moses – taking him to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised and recognized by the high priest. At this point, it seems important to also note what they did not do. They did not attempt to have a singular, special service convened for the child. They did not petition the local authorities to have a proclamation or, pardon the anachronism, a press conference. And incredibly, they did not hole up in their home and wait for the miracles to begin. This young man and woman were handed, in the form of a helpless infant, what they were told was to be the savior of their people; and yet, they were given no specific instructions, no crystal ball, no 24-hour call line to guide their actions. And so they did what they believed was best. As humble people, they looked to their elders, their religious traditions and customs. They undertook the task of raising a child as best they knew how. Surely it was hard not to wonder when the magic might start: when Jesus would levitate, or angels would re-appear, or when another bright star might appear to show them what to do next.
As I read this part of the story and thought about Mary and Joseph, I started reminiscing about the eight days that followed my return home from Vladivostok with Nora. For the first time in years, I took time off from work. In those first days, we took Nora for her first doctor visit, Jasmine took her to school for “show and tell,” my parents came to visit, and many of you stopped by our house to welcome Nora, to offer your support to Vickie and me, and to see this new baby that you had prayed for and helped us bring home. Also, within those first weeks the Pullen community blessed her and you offered your support to help nurture her as she grows in faith and wisdom. I dare say that what I am describing is not any different from what any parent sitting here today experienced when their child was born or was welcomed into their family. Sure, there are differences in each of our stories. But basically, when children come into our families we do what is familiar, what our traditions and customs have taught us to do, and then as soon as we can we try to get back to a “normal” life. We return to work, adjust to new schedules, and take care of the responsibilities of raising the child. And that is exactly what Mary and Joseph did. While they had every reason to do other wise, to capitalize on the otherness of their newborn, they didn’t. They gave their child the best gift a parent can give, or for that matter the best gift the church can give our children—love and patience as they grow and become strong in the person that God created them to be.
I love the end of this part of the story. It says, “When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they [Mary and Joseph] returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” When I read this text, it was this verse that caught my attention. As I have considered why, it strikes me that within this verse lies an important lesson for all of us—parent or not. It is this. In the challenging times of life, it is in returning to where we started that ultimately we find our way. Mary and Joseph’s story invites each of us to ask the question, “Where is that place within that we need to return to in order to find our truth?” After having finished everything that others expect of us, where is that place of home that is calling for our return to life? Home, not as a place of familiarity or even of comfort, but rather that place where we can be real and authentic while doing the work we need to do. I don’t know if it was hard for Mary and Joseph to return home after such a significant event—one that must have changed every part of who they knew themselves to be. But this I have learned from them: being faithful includes wandering far from home and then being willing to return to where we started and know it for the first time and be known for the first time. It is called growing up and becoming strong, being filled with wisdom, and finding that the favor of God rests upon us.
As you pack away the Christmas boxes and prepare for the New Year, I leave you with the chorus of Auden’s A Christmas Oratorio.
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.