by Joe Rose
The first followers of “The Way” did not observe Christ’s birth. Two millenia later, the days leading up to Christmas tend to trigger episodes of childhood nostalgia.
As a 51-year-old seminarian studying to be a priest, I have grown into a fuller understanding of how the blessed birth of Christ fits into the greater story of our Lord and Savior. It is a story of hope, healing and redemption still being written in partnership with the Holy Spirit at St. John’s and in other faithful communities.
But as we journey through the last week of Advent in a bewildering year shaken by multiple pandemics, I have found myself thinking about Christmas as a kid. I haven’t been daydreaming. Rather, the memories have helped me reflect on how God, sometimes unbeknownst to us, travels with us in our lives and is always ready to invite us into the home that he has built for us.
In 2 Samuel:
Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.
Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.
In the Gospel of Luke 1:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
In the Song of Mary, The Magnificat:
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
I love that God sent his angel to Nazareth, a small, out-of-the-way village in the hill country of Galilee. It’s a sign that God’s sovereign grace is alive everywhere, especially in the overlooked and forgotten places, and is active in human history.
I grew up in a small town in central Washington state with the same kind of backcountry status as Nazareth. I was one of two children in an “unchurched,” blue collar household. Still, Jesus’ birthday loomed large on my calendar. During a typical year, I kept time by counting down to the events that I could expect to bring me happiness: the new “Star Wars” movie, the start of summer vacation, and Christmas. Well, the magically wrapped and decorated secularized version of Christmas anyway.
I could look back at the years before my baptism at 20 and chuckle about how I thought Christmas, with its Life Saver-colored lights and holiday TV specials, was the beginning and the end of Jesus.
But I don’t. More than anything, especially in the final hours of a traumatic year, I’m thankful that my first introduction to Christ was a season alive with revelation, joy, miracles, and mystery.
During the last week of Advent, we wait in anticipation to celebrate and express our faith in the miracle of the virgin birth of the Messiah. But as we talk about the coming of the Logos and prepare for our Savior’s coming again in the future, I feel compelled to reflect on how Christ often comes to us through the power of memory.
Right now, I’m thinking about Christmas 1983, when my family lived in a mobile home and my dad was laid off from a construction job.
It was a tough time. In order to make money to pay the heating bill and keep the Christmas tree lights on, dad shoveled snow from the walkways of houses and businesses around town. Coming home after dark one night, his cheeks pink and his thick fingers stiff from the cold, he broke down and wept. He was scared. It was the first time I saw my dad cry.
That was the December, during the days that I would later know as Advent, when I began praying in my room. Not just talking in whispers to the God I knew I believed in, but really praying. I would lay on my bed, with my bedroom lights turned off, and ask God for help – help for my dad, help for my struggling family, help to get us through the winter. All these years later, I still remember feeling as if God had been patiently waiting for me to come to him so that he could welcome me into his house.
As 2 Samuel reminds us, we don’t build a house for God. He builds a house for us. He doesn’t expect his house to be fancy or have a towering, glowing Christmas tree. God will keep his promises, even if he is living in a tent. God, it seems, refuses to be contained by our big plans for him. Based on my experience, God is OK with being “with us” in a mobile home. Of course, in his unconditional love, God fulfilled his promise by building a house among us in Jesus Christ – born in a manger, helpless, vulnerable, defenseless.
In order to make God house a home, we need to surrender to the mystery of our faith in God’s messianic promise fulfilled through Jesus Christ. Once we enter, we need to keep asking ourselves: How are we going to contribute to making God’s house a holy and healing place?
Mary’s womb provided a home for Emmanuel and, by extension, good news first and foremost for the poor, the hungry and the most vulnerable in every generation. We walk in the joy knowing Jesus has gone before us and has prepare place for us.
As we light the fourth candle as part of your Advent practice, I invite you to imagine the scene of Gabriel approaching Mary, a poor Jewish girl in an occupied and oppressed land who was lifted up by God’s grace. I strive to be like Mary in that moment: Spirit-led, trusting, overcoming fear and confusion to say “yes” to God.
I invite you to imagine what Mary might have been feeling as she was told the unimaginable. Meditate on the times when Christ’s presence, our healing and salvation, has revealed itself in the messy parts of our lives. Centering our gaze on the candle flames, let us be thankful for our parents, first responders, nurses in Covid-19 wards, and everyone else who puts the needs of others over their own ego and despair. Remember, if you can, when your prayer life was born. Reflect on those times when the Holy Spirit has come upon us and we have said “yes” to God. Meditate not on this world’s fleeting happiness, but in the joy revealed by God being transformed and in God transforming us.
Let us pray:
Come, Holy Spirit. We know that you are moving with us through history. Make your presence known to us in this Advent season. We say “yes” to you and the ways you have welcomed us into your house. We say “yes” to the love that brought Jesus into our world; the love that changed history; the love that transforms us every day. We say “yes” to being faithful stewards of our island home in the Cosmos. We say “yes” to finding ways to be a light for those who worry about losing their housing in these dark economic times, especially the most vulnerable.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Photo Credit: Joe Rose