Weekly Preaching: December 30, 2018

December 28th, 2018

December 30: the proverbial “low Sunday.” The Gospel lection, Luke 2:42-51, fast-forwards to Jesus at age twelve — but he was just born five days ago! This little vignette is easy to oversimplify. All parents at some point misplace a child momentarily and panic. But don’t make Jesus a holy delinquent; Mary upbraided him. And he’s not teaching the teachers so much as having a conversation with them; he listens. The grown Jesus will harbor no great love for the temple, threatening its destruction and purging it of vice.

For the days after Christmas, I like to ponder the earliest moments of Jesus’ life: Mary tenderly held him. He cried. Visitors arrived. Neighbor boys were slaughtered… Rembrandt depicted the nativity with long shadows, and that is how it will be for his entire life.

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In the days after Christmas, I like to reflect on where the holy family went in the days after Christmas: to the temple and their encounter with Simeon and Anna, which speaks of the dark shadows after the sheer delight of the elderly in their encounter with this child. I speak about the shadows in from my forthcoming book, Getting Born

Mary and Joseph delivered their son to the priest for circumcision, which for them was a non-negotiable act of obedience and devotion to God. I wonder if Mary felt her first pangs of separation when she handed her infant son over to a priest she’d never met, and if she shivered a bit when she heard his outcry when the knife cut into his flawless flesh. Another unexpected pain was about to hit her.

Seemingly by chance, Mary and Joseph bump into an old man named Simeon and then a woman named Anna who had been a widow for eighty-four years. The aged inevitably turn and gaze at an infant, as if the chances to glimpse such precious beauty are numbered. As George Eliot noted when telling us about the reclusive miser, Silas Marner, discovering a little girl in his home after losing all his gold: “We older human beings feel a certain awe in the presence of a little child, such as we feel before some quiet majesty or beauty in earth or sky.”

Or was Simeon somehow, even if unwittingly, dispatched there by God? “It happened that there was a man.” Chance, maybe. But then verse 27 exposes what even he may not have known — that he was “led by the Spirit.” This “upright and devout” one was not alone in “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25). But some mystical disclosure had come to this man, that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. Do mothers today encounter various older people who figure in profound and surprising ways into the unfolding drama of their children’s lives? Does God send such people into our orbit to shape the puzzled parents’ new world?

Simeon took the child. Mary would forever be handing her child over to the hopes of others. His prayer over the child must have struck Mary and Joseph dumb. “Now let your servant depart in peace,” for this Messiah (even in infancy) had come, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for Israel.” We deploy extravagant hyperbole when speaking of a newborn, but this is over the top, outrageous, either divinely inspired or sheer craziness.

Would that he had stopped with his blessing. In somber tones, Simeon spoke directly to Mary: “Behold, he is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel… A sword will pass through your own soul.” These densely framed words require considerable exegesis and much pondering from Mary. His destiny involves the “fall and rise” of God’s people. The order should puzzle us. We speak of the “rise and fall” of, let’s say, the Roman Empire, a British dynasty, or a famous politician. With Jesus, as Scripture has tutored us to expect, everything is turned upside down. Those drawn into the wake of this child will learn that you fall before you rise, you get emptied of your own goodness before you are filled with the mercy. The same happens with God’s church, rising like a phoenix only after suffering the worst persecution.

This pattern will be Jesus’ own. He will fall, flagellated by the soldiers, fall beneath his own cross, finally crushed by death itself, only then to rise and to reign. This fall will indeed pierce Mary’s heart. Simeon was right: She would barely be able to stand at the foot of the cross, trying to avert her gaze but not being able to do so from the sight of the lifeblood she had given him draining out of his precious, pure body. Whose heart was more crushed than hers? Who felt the piercing of the nails and the spear more than his mother? Who, even after his resurrection and ascension, felt the pangs of missing him more than his holy mother?

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We may pause and consider prophecies, most of them surely unintended, that are uttered over our children. Sizing up mom and dad, the doctor says He’ll be a tall one! Or as a premie beats the odds and exhibits surprising growth, the nurse says She’s a fighter! Or beside the too-young mother in labor and delivery, with no family hovering nearby, the obstetrician shrugs and hangs her head: That one is already behind the eight ball. I have vague recollections of overhearing awful words in my own house growing up, that when my older sister was born they had really wanted a boy. So I was their boy! and she was not. A terrible prophecy.

St. Dominic’s mother, Juana (Jane) travelled to Silos in Castile while she was still pregnant. In the sanctuary there she had a vision: a little dog in her womb, with a blazing torch in his mouth, setting the world on fire. Did that really happen just that way? Or did she understand her pregnancy years later, only in retrospect, perhaps the way Rebekah remembered her twins, Esau and Jacob, writhing in her womb, the earliest sample of the vicious sibling rivalry that was to come (Gen. 25:23).

Are there prophecies you’ve overheard about yourself? Some are cute, but loaded. We got Duke bibs and socks for our wee ones... did they feel they failed to fulfill their promise when they didn’t go there? Some prophetic messages that impact our children are entirely unnoticed and unspoken — like parental anxiety over what to do with a little one, or over how terribly scary the world is out there.

Even a parent’s own childhood can function as a prophecy for the new child just born. In Parenting from the Inside Out, Daniel Siegal and Mary Hartzell demonstrate how our brains are wired so that parents quite naturally recreate the emotional interactions and responses experienced when they were little. A parent is weighed down by unacknowledged emotional baggage, and then the child triggers a response that is more about the baggage than the present situation. Pretty soon everybody is confused, upset, and overwhelmed. Then, that child grows up and repeats the pattern with their own child. I remember my mom, in considerable frustration with me, uttering the dire prophecy, You’ll be hurt by your children just like you hurt me. Weirdly, curses like these fulfill themselves, not because of the curse uttered but because of the emotions buried.

"What can we say December 30? Christmas 1" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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