Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Make Way for Wonder

Scripture read on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day includes Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a); Luke 2:41-52

In the children’s service on Christmas Eve, the shape of what happens is predictable. The words of the Bible lessons, the carols, the step by step setting of the Crèche, all are familiar. And roomy enough to contain an occasional surprise, a moment when the expected moves over to make room for wonder.

You who were here that evening may have noticed any number of such moments, but the one that made me stop in my tracks and simply watch it happen was when the three kings were set, with their camel, in that middle window.

We know better than to place them at the Crèche, that night. We’re Episcopalians, and we know that if we don’t take them the long way ‘round, we won’t have Epiphany, and we like our seasons.

This parish custom of moving the magi from place to place, from one window to another, sometimes to the piano top, until they reach Bethlehem on the twelfth day and their mission is realized, this custom has its risks.

Not unlike their real journey, there are slippery slopes along the way. Specifically, that second window from the front, where the sill tips down towards the aisle, not unlike the slope of a sand dune—but minus the traction.

I believe it was there, one Christmas in the 90’s, that the camel fell. Not the one we have now (a hardy breed made of resin), but the original plaster one that came with the set, brought from Italy in the 1920’s. With a great crash he fell, and when we went (with sadness) to sweep up the pieces, we found that the impact had broken away all that was camel from an older figure at the core of the camel, and behold, that was a kneeling angel.

You didn’t need to squint and imagine it was an angel: it was a very convincing angel that hadn’t come out of the mold quite right, and instead of being tossed in the trash it was built upon, slipped into the camel mold as its base. It was a Depression-era camel, nothing wasted.

Well, I tell you all that to set the stage for this Christmas Eve. I don’t recall who set the first wise man in place that night—just that it was our soft king, the one Paula Consolini made to replace yet one more casualty of a Christmas past. Then a second king was brought, and the camel (the new technologically improved camel) was made to fit an increasingly crowded window-sill, in light of the candle that had to be navigated around.

I was watching the progress at that window because the next move was going to be mine, to lead a prayer for peace. I counted magi and got to two, then my eyes were drawn to the font, where I saw the journey of the third.

He was in David’s hands, David who is blind and who, holding that third king, could feel every fold in his robe, the gold bands at his biceps, the braids of his hair and that jeweled crown, and, clutched against his chest, the golden jar of myrrh. David had the king in much the same grip, and by his busy fingers he knew, I expect, more about this figure than you or I will ever know.

Up that west aisle he came, step by step, squeezing by the folks in folding chairs, guided by his father behind him, his father with a hand on each of his son’s shoulders, talking him along each step of the way, coaching him through a careful perfect landing in the tightest of spots, the royal entourage tucked in just as tight as being seated in coach.

I don’t know how many of that Christmas Eve multitude saw what was happening. I knew it was the most important action I was likely to see that night, so I just watched it happen. Perhaps some thought something was wrong—but something was very right.

In that respect, this surprising moment shared some features of St. Luke’s story of Jesus in the Temple, as a teenager. This scene is caught in that same middle window on the west aisle, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s image of Jesus in dialogue with the elders. See how his arm is raised, making a rhetorical point.

Yes, we have fast-forwarded twelve years from Bethlehem in the twinkling of a Sunday. Mary and Joseph have brought their son to the big city for the festival of Passover, and now they’re heading home to Nazareth. In caravan as a large group of travelers, Joseph and Mary hadn’t had a sighting of Jesus for the better part of a day, but they trusted him and assumed he was farther back (or ahead) with family and friends in that caravan.

But they were wrong, and they quickly acted to right that wrong by searching for him until they found him. When they did, it was not quickly clear to them that something was very right. This was unclear to them as they saw him sitting with the older men who taught the laws and interpreted the holy writings of the Jewish people.

Child, why have you treated us like this? They ask him, as soon as they catch a private moment with him. Didn’t you know we’d be worried sick looking for you?

Mother, father, why would you worry, and where else would you look but here in my Father’s house? His voice is guiding me, I can hear him. I am in his hands, as always—I feel them on my shoulders.

Now, the joke is on me. I chose this Gospel for today among three that are provided in our new common lectionary of readings. The other two are about the three kings, and when I saw the option of this Gospel I thought, “This would be new and fresh, hearing this story on the Sunday nearest the Epiphany,” as if magi, camel, and star were feeling dated, shopworn, and stale. I wasn’t expecting to talk about the arrival of the kings.

So instead we have the arrival of Jesus where he belongs, in the Temple where he will have a lifelong argument with the powers of religion that will not see or speak truth.

We are not told what questions Jesus and his elders were debating, this day in the Temple when his parents find him, but it’s not far-fetched to imagine that those distinguished teachers were defending the dignity of the Temple, while Jesus was defending the dignity of human nature made in the likeness of God. That those teachers were describing the superiority of properly educated, correctly believing, and righteously behaving religious people… while Jesus was describing the mission of God in lovingkindness restoring all people to unity with himself.

Joseph and Mary were familiar enough with formal education to sense what was wrong, seeing their son seated not at the feet of his elders, but among the teachers. Three days had passed in anguish for Mary and Joseph, choking back panic as they couldn’t find him. Those same three days had fired the mind and heart of the teenager from Nazareth who couldn’t get enough of this encounter, listening, questioning, answering, inching his way in from the edges and up from the floor and onto the benches of open debate, fingering timeless issues of law and justice, mercy and faithfulness, showing in those three days how he knew those matters more intimately than venerable worthies three, four, five times his age.

We’re left with the impression that his parents could not explain the intensely clear vision of their son. But in a world where the apple does not fall far from the tree, it could be that Mary and Joseph could not explain, either, the refusal of religious teachers to see and speak truth. Instinctively they must have felt danger mounting, relieved (for now) by they return to Nazareth and a semblance of normalcy, giving them time to treasure and puzzle-over these things, especially their son’s intuitive grasp (as if God had his ear) and their child’s courage (as if he had, on each shoulder, the guiding touch of a father’s or a mother’s hand).

Questions for the new year:

What coaching, what guidance, will you welcome?

Will you listen for the whisperings of God, or have you ruled them out?

Will you move with or against the pressures of wisdom and love?