A Homily for the First Sunday in Christmas
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ who comes to us as both a child and a savior. Amen.
What was our Savior like as a child? Beyond the carol’s claims of “no crying he makes”?
We see shockingly little of Christ’s early life. Mark and John completely omit our Lord’s childhood. Matthew gives a quick over-view in only a chapter and a half. Luke packs it all – from birth to age thirty – into one chapter, fifty-two verses – much of which focuses on the first few days of his life and the people around him rather than on Jesus himself. All of the material we have is laden with symbolism: the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt as refugees only to return safely in a re-creation of the Exodus. Jesus presented in the Temple, greeted with prophetic excitement as Anna and Simeon proclaim that this child is the one they’ve been waiting for. Today, St. Luke builds on his already-rich imagery, telling us that the Holy Family was pious, and that Mary and Joseph observed Passover with the traditional pilgrimage up to Jerusalem. In a foreshadowing of the Passion and Resurrection, Jesus disappears for three days before being returned safely.
But today, beneath the symbolism, we also see an important – no, a vital part of Jesus’ life. We see something incredibly normal. Yes, this reading is set 2,000 years ago, and yes, it is full of vibrant imagery, but it also contains a very human moment. It’s a scene that has undoubtedly played out in nearly every family over the centuries.
Other texts about Christ’s childhood, those which did not make it into the canon of Scripture we now call the Bible, show a Jesus who fashions living sparrows out of clay, controls water by speech alone, and at his word, another child is instantly “dried up” like a mummy. These stories show a disturbingly angry and yet all-powerful child who calls down death and blindness on other children. In these infancy Gospels, Jesus is anything but your average child. He is a petulant, all-seeing, all-powerful magician.
Medieval artists struggled with how to depict Christ as a child – they often showed him as a fully-grown human, only in miniature. His face in these paintings is that of an old man, his limbs have the proportions of an adult rather than the chubbiness of an infant or the long, thin limbs of a teen during a growth spurt.
Luke presents a different vision, a very human vision, of our Lord. Luke shows us a Jesus who acts like a normal 12-year-old.
After all, kids do tend to wander off. The perfect storm of short attention spans, high energy levels, little impulse control, and a natural curiosity about the world, put them together, and bam. At one point, my parents received a knock at the door only to find someone returning their toddle – me – after I was found wandering down the road – much to my parents’ surprise, as I had snuck out of the house, the little two-year old escape artist that I was. Another time, I got lost outside the Lourve – the joy of being in a military family is that you get the opportunity to wander off in a crowded city where you don’t speak the language. I have multiple memories of my childhood in which I went to investigate some curious site or another, looked up, and only then realized that I had no idea where my parents were. Off goes little Andrew to stare at a different exhibit at the zoo or the museum, only to realize that his parents aren’t where he left them. Now, to be fair to my younger self, I still tend to wander off from my wife’s side, absent-mindedly, to see what’s on the next aisle over at the store (especially at REI). My childhood tendency to wander off never really went away — this might be why I enjoy hiking so much. And I fully expect that any child I raise will fully repay me in kind for all the heart-stopping panic I have visited upon my parents.
My own habits aside, I know this is not unique to me or my family. I was on top of Atlanta’s Stone Mountain a few summers ago, a popular destination for tourists of all types, when a man ran up to his daughter (she couldn’t have been older than seven), kneel down as he grabbed her shoulders, and in a charmingly British accent, scolded her: “I am sore cross with you right now. Your mother and I have been searching all over for you.”
Or just look around some time during worship as youngsters wander off from the service, exploring the pews around them or wandering through the pages of their hymnals. The liturgical scholar Gail Ramshaw recalls her youth, her mind wandering in during worship; she would pick up the hymnal and flip through the calendar, finding Marian feast days her parish did not observe. She credits this exploration with igniting a passion for liturgy – which in turn has shaped the Lutheran ordo over the past thirty years.
Kids wonder and they wander.
The group of family members and neighbors have made it a day’s trip out of Jerusalem back towards Nazareth, and Mary looks to Joseph and says, “Go get Jesus and tell him to get ready for dinner.”
“Ok, where is he?”
“I thought you knew? Go check and see if he’s with his cousin John. I’ll see if he’s over playing with Malachi.” A brief survey reveals that nobody’s seen Jesus since they passed through the city gates in Jerusalem earlier that morning. His aunt Elizabeth says she thinks she saw him wandering off towards the Temple. They turn around and start walking back up the mountain towards Jerusalem – another full day’s walk. On the third day, they finally find him, sitting in the Temple talking to some of the scribes.
“What were you thinking?” Mary yells. “We were worried sick!”
And Jesus responds with a divine, “Mo-om, it’s not that big of a deal. Just calm down, ok? It’s not like I was doing anything wrong.”
“Your father and I searched all over this city for you! What if you were robbed and left for dead on the side of the road? What if there had been a riot, or you had gotten arrested?”
Jesus looks over to Joseph for support but realizes both of his parents are furious. And the text doesn’t tell us, but I have a hunch that our Lord was grounded for three days.
Today, we catch a glimpse of Christ which is wonderfully mundane, a Savior so completely like us. We see a bit of Jesus’ full humanity, that he squabbled with his parents, that he wandered off like kids do, that his parents worried about him. The Holy Family was surprisingly normal.
Today, we read about a Jesus who is not an all-powerful magician or a fully-formed adult trapped in a teenager’s body. Rather, Luke shows us a Lord who increases in wisdom and in stature, in divine and human favor.
Luke shows us a Lord who truly lives among us, even in childhood. We see an incarnation which truly means humanity – growing and changing, and domestic squabbles, and a kid who wanders off on a visit to the big city.
This is the miracle of the Incarnation, this is what the Christmas season is all about: that God the Son takes on human flesh, in all of its uniqueness. He has a family with whom he occasionally bickers, he gets into trouble. This is a God who sweats and weeps, sleeps, eats, drinks. A God who is so fully human as to know the sting of Death. That Christ became so fully human as to grow and learn.
And it’s here that we get to the real heart of the matter, the full weight of Christmas and the Incarnation – that Jesus was fully God, yes, but also fully human. He wasn’t simply an immortal deity wandering around in a human costume, like the depictions in the extra-biblical sources, or an adult in a tiny body like the medieval artists depicted. No, our Lord comes to us as a child – a real and full child.
Throughout the entire twelve days of Christmas, and throughout the entire life of Christ, we see a God who abides with us.
Luke shows us a God who meets us where we are, who meets us in humanity. A God who is born into a working class family, who is greeted by shepherds rather than emperors. A God who lives as a refugee. A God who grows and learns. A God who travels among the outcast, the sick, and the poor.
This is a God who meets us where we are.
A God who meets us among the sick and the dying. A God who meets us in the water of a wash basin. A God who meets us in bread and wine around the Table. A God who meets us in here and now, who appears in the midst of us as one of us.
My apologies for posting this homily so late in the week. I was off wandering through the woods of north Georgia.
The title is taken from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in which the child has a more typical reaction upon realizing he’s misplaced his parents.