Power Lunch is an informal service offered to church and community members, especially those who work nearby, at which they can get a meal and listen to an informal message. In keeping with the service, this message was delivered without a formal reading of the scripture (hence the retelling within the text) and without a manuscript, so this represents the message as prepared though not necessarily exactly as delivered.
My wife and I said goodbye yesterday to my in-laws, who were visiting with us for Christmas. Before they left, my mother-in-law, as has become her yet-subtle habit, mentioned that a Christmas celebration would be more fun with grandchildren around. We do think some about parenthood, but following the Christmas story is enough to make you want to avoid it. Jesus was definitely not the child Mary and Joseph expected.
You might have heard before that there are gospels–stories of the life of Jesus–that did not make it into the Bible. It’s not that these are necessarily bad books or that the church was trying to hide them, but over time they were not used as much and the church determined that they were not part of God’s inspired Word. They are still interesting reading. One of them, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, describes Jesus as having changed quite a lot from the meek and mild baby. Apparently another boy in the neighborhood was running down the street and knocked up against Jesus’ shoulder, so Jesus zapped him dead. The people in the community started to complain: “why did Mary and Joseph bring this strange child into our midst,” and Jesus struck them blind. Joseph approaches Jesus to punish him with his hands cupped over his ears (we don’t know why, except maybe that Joseph figured the kid died and the neighbors got blinded so he needed to protect himself as much as possible), and Jesus sends him away, saying “trouble me no more, Father.”
I love to watch the Simpsons. I used to be a little embarrassed about that, but I’ve since decided it’s about the best source of critique of modern American religion, so I’ll admit it proudly now. They did a Christmas episode this past week, and the Simpsons characters acted out the story of the birth of Christ. Marge Simpson played Mary as the stereotypical Jewish mother, and when the angel announces to her that the child to be born within her will be the savior of the nations, she replies, “but not a doctor?” The frustrated angel argues that he will heal many people, but Marge says “still, no diploma to hang on the wall?”
Many of the stories about the challenges and surprises of parenting Jesus are not issues you and I would ever have to deal with as parents, but one story from Jesus’ childhood sounds very familiar to anyone who has had children (or been a child, for that matter). It takes place in the second chapter of Luke (Luke 2:41-52)–we’re not even past the chapter in which Jesus is born yet, though at this point he’s about twelve years old. Mary and Joseph take Jesus along in the caravan of their extended family to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. They went through the motions of the festival and probably spent some time in the temple, and then when it was over they gathered with their family again to leave. They didn’t see Jesus but figured he was playing with some of his cousins and surely he was somewhere along in the group. At the end of the day, though, they still hadn’t seen him. “Where is Jesus? It’s dinner time, and he never misses a meal.” When they figured out what had happened, they turned around and traveled the day’s journey back to Jerusalem. They found Jesus in the temple with the priests and elders, learning and asking questions. The teachers were impressed with him because he asked such wonderful questions and showed such understanding of what they were saying, and I’m pretty impressed because I tried to run away once and my parents found me in about 10 minutes: this is a skilled kid. But Mary was not impressed at all. “Child, why did you do this to your mother?” And Jesus answers back–he even sounds a little bratty in this response–“didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” Jesus was clearly not the child parents typically expect.
We can whisper to each other about our amazement that Mary and Joseph would leave their child behind for a whole day before realizing the mistake, but the fact is we do the same thing every year. As our year progresses, we get through Thanksgiving and then tolerate Advent, which seems to be mostly about shopping, and somehow find ourselves at the manger on Christmas Eve. We enjoy the fellowship and joy of Christmas, and then we move on, heading back to our “real” lives, leaving Jesus behind at the festival.
Much of our confusion comes from the differences and conflicts between the calendar of the Church and the calendar by which most of us order our lives. Christmas comes in December–the end of the year for us–but is close to the beginning of the Church year.
Exactly how Christmas ended up on December 25 is not certain; there are a few stories, and probably parts of each of them are the real reason for the holiday’s dating. One of my favorite stories for its logic and simplicity is that the day was dated by medieval historians who determined the death of Jesus to have been on March 25, around AD 30. They reasoned–and this may sound a little strange, but approach history with charity; this is the way their logic worked–that since Jesus was sent by God and lived a full and perfect life as intended by God, he must have lived a whole number of years. Thus, his life began on March 25. Well, we don’t celebrate Christmas in the Spring, but on that day the church historically celebrates the Annunciation, or the announcement to Mary that Jesus was going to be born. This was Jesus’ conception, and at this time life was thought to begin at conception. The historians further assumed that Jesus, being perfect, would have had a complete gestation period of nine months, making December 25 the day of his birth.
Another theory, which probably has more to do with the truth, is that the early church, knowing that exactly what date Jesus was born had little theological significance, decided to place important days of the church calendar near events or celebrations that would make them easier to understand. Christmas, under this theory, was placed near the Winter solstice. I don’t know a lot about astronomy, so if you know that I’m getting it wrong, you should feel free not to interrupt me because most people don’t know and will believe whatever I say. At the autumnal equinox, on September 21, the day and night are the same length. Over the next three months, as we move toward the Winter solstice, the days get shorter and the nights get longer until we reach the shortest day of the year on the solstice itself. It is into this world–the darkest our world gets–that we celebrate the birth of Christ, whose life is light to us. It makes good sense: just as the night is getting unbearably long, we remember that darkness never overcomes light, and after we celebrate the birth of Christ, the world gets brighter.
In the Christian calendar, this is close to the beginning. The church year starts on the first Sunday of Advent, which, this year and many years, was the Sunday after Thanksgiving (that’s not how it’s dated, obviously, but it usually works out that way). Advent is a season of anticipation and preparation for the coming of Christ. Christmas Day marks the beginning of the Christmas festival, which lasts for twelve days–the annoying song is actually born in the tradition of the church. Though we and other churches sometimes have a “birthday party” for Jesus, which is useful because it helps children begin to build a relationship with Jesus and understand something of what the day means, Christmas is not a birthday. Birthdays are about remembering the day of our birth, but each Christmas Jesus is born into our lives anew; it is more than just commemoration. And then, on January 6, we celebrate Epiphany, when we remember the arrival of the wise men, we recognize Christ as King, and we anticipate his coming in final glory when the Kingdom of God is realized upon the earth. What a wonderful way to start the year: anticipating, receiving, and recognizing the gift of Christ.
In our calendar, though, Christmas is an ending. It is a point toward which we work in a frenzy, and New Year’s Day is more than anything a revelry in relief and self-indulgence before a return to normalcy. After the whole HallowThanksMas (term coined by Greg Jones in Christian Century, December 22, 1999) season, by New Years’, we’re done. The well-intentioned among us make new years’ resolutions, but they are almost always self-serving: “I’m going to lose twenty-five pounds this year,” “I’m going to spend money more responsibly,” or “I’m going to start an exercise routine.”
Starting with Advent
What if instead, we started with Advent? What if we identified the beginning of our year as the first Sunday of Advent, anticipating the coming of the King? Perhaps we would be a little more content to leave the celebration of Christmas to the festival itself rather than singing and hearing Christmas music in November. More importantly, perhaps Advent would seem less like a chaotic rush if we knew we were going to have all twelve days of Christmas to celebrate when the time came. We would move from anticipation to a time of joy as we receive again the gift of Christmas, and then, Epiphany would provide a time not only for recognizing the kingship of Christ, but also for considering the ways we can live lives that acknowledge that kingship in the year we began by anticipating his coming.
Is it merely a semantic difference? Is there no practical effect to when the year begins? I’m not willing to believe that. It is surely more powerful to begin something with mystery and wonder than with New Year’s Eve, on which nothing magical happens, except that we get to turn over another page on the calendar. Perhaps the good things about Christmas would then inform our goals and our focus for the year: being with others, giving, and child-like joy.
A Christmas carol that’s hardly ever sung any more warns us that it won’t be easy. Actually, this isn’t a Christmas carol but a hymn for the feast of St. Stephen, which takes place on December 26. Stephen was the first deacon of the church, and thus he has significance for me because I am a member of the order of deacons. He is called a martyr because he died as a witness to the victory of Jesus Christ. You already recognize him when you hang a wreath on your door: Stephen’s name means “wreath” in Greek, and so that is a symbol of his commitment to faith and the enduring victory of Christ, even in the face of an unwelcoming world. The hymn describes the difficulty of taking a different path this winter:
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay ’round about,
Deep and crisp and even:
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.
“Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pinelogs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch, forth they went,
Forth they went together:
Through the rude wind’s wild lament,
And the bitter weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how;
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page;
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dented;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.
Words by J. M. Neale (1818-66)
The world is set up to support the typical celebration of Christmas. The stores have sales, the city puts up decorations, and friends all have parties. But the world is also set up for us to leave Jesus behind at the festival and go back to our normal lives; to ground a new year in a “back to normal” attitude facilitated by New Year’s Day. Staying at the festival with Jesus would require forging a different path, and might likely feel quite cold, but the master walks ahead of us, printing the snow ahead of us for warmth and guidance where it is least expected.
What if we were to start our new year at advent? What if we were to begin by anticipating, receiving, and recognizing Christ as King, and then to shape our years around that good news? “What if” indeed.