Thursday, December 25, 2008

Good news of great joy

Dear Brothers and sisters in Christ

“For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.”

This verse from the book of the prophet Isaiah resonates deep into our soul this night of heavenly peace. We celebrate a birthday unlike any other. For most people, we only celebrate the birthdays of the living. After their death, we have a different day to remember them by. Yet, for this “Wonder-Counselor”, this “appearance of the glory of our great God and savior”, this savior born in the lineage of David, we continue the praises that began with the songs of angels to shepherds some 2000 years ago. This Son will be remembered for his life and so, each year, we feel compelled to remember when first God and Mary gave the world its redeemer.

We need to take this time because it will soon be over. It seems to me like these next two weeks pass with the speed of Santa’s reindeer. So much preparation goes into tomorrow. The children need to behave, or at least they’ll do so when mom and dad remind them that Santa’s watching. We all will (hopefully) get to sleep in heavenly peace this night but, before the last present is unwrapped, we have already started putting away the Christmas decorations that have been out since Thanksgiving day. We start our plans for New Years eve…just one short week away. Do we want to have the cheese dip in the crock pot all night and spend all New Year’s Day soaking it to get it clean? Did we remember to get a babysitter for the kids? Then, before we know it, it’s all over and the kids are still at home on their winter break while the rest of us go back to work. Or, worse yet, the kids go back to their normal lives with their own family and we remember, with fondness, that there used to be something different about this time of year, something that just isn’t different any more because we’re older. We need this night to be different.

I think of this tonight as we read this most famous passage of the birth of Christ. This passage has been immortalized by such great readers as Raymond Burr, Stephen Colbert, and even Charlie Brown. It has been dissected by scientists to prove or disprove its historical reality. But, at its core, the evangelist is trying to tell us something larger than scientific news. He’s telling “good news of great joy.” Mary and Joseph make the 90 mile trek from Nazareth in the Galilee region south to the miniscule city of David that is Bethlehem. They were going there because it was Joseph’s home town. This should have been a time of rejoicing. In a time in which travel was difficult, especially because they weren’t a family of wealth so they would have had jobs that demanded they stay in close to home, the fact that fancy pants Joseph is coming home with the woman he intends on marrying should have meant that everyone is putting on their Sabbath best and getting the best room in the house ready for their arrival. But, because of the census, everyone is coming home, all sixteen children of the sixteen children of the sixteen children. This town of limited space and resources suddenly is overpopulated such that the entire house, even the equivalent of a garage, would have been necessary for occupancy. That’s really where Joseph and Mary found themselves sleeping, in a room reserved for the animals since the rest of the house was taken. And, of course, this is when all the elements came together for the birth of Jesus. Mary wraps her son in straps of cloth and takes a deep pride in her newborn son.

Meanwhile, somewhere close by, the working stiffs of the world who had no idea what was happening, were informed by angels that they should be the first to visit the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. One wonders why the angels appear to them? These aren’t the mighty and powerful of this world. They also aren’t the poorest of the poor. They’re hardworking, middle-class folks that take a shower after work, not before. Jesus is literally surrounded by them this night in his parents, his extended family and, now, because of the message of angels, the shepherds.

It seems as though, throughout his ministry, he had a special affinity for them and people like them. He called hard-working fishermen to be his first disciples. He scorned the rich and powerful who were far too comfortable in this life calling them hypocrites. He looked with love upon the poor but never told his followers that it was their job to get rid of poverty. In fact, at points, he seemed to indicate that there will always be poor people. It’s almost as though Jesus knows that the ones who are most open to his message are the ones who most need to slow down their lives and get a view of the larger picture, the ones most in need of a Sabbath rest. The shepherds could easily get so fixated on protecting their sheep that they lose the sense of wonder and awe. Joseph’s family were so concerned with finding places for everyone and keeping everyone fed, that they lost their sense of charity. That’s the amazing thing about preoccupation: It makes it easy to neglect something important. When the chaos subsides and before you take down the decorations, take a minute or two and remember one thing. This is not a birthday party for a long-dead loved one that we just can’t quite stop remembering. This Christ mass is the birthday of the savior of the world whose birth was foretold by prophets and announced to common shepherds. It is a time for us to pause and give thanks to the God who came into this world to personally show us his love. I pray that each of you feel the song of praise the angels sang so long ago, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to those on whom is his favor rests!” May God bless each of you this Christmas Season!

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