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January 3, 2004
Oh, dear! Yesterday, I completely forgot that it was Friday, the day traditionally reserved on the Farm for a meditation on the lessons to be read in church on Sunday. Pardon me, please, and chalk it up to holiday amnesia. In the unlikely event that the clergy are not already perfectly prepared for Sunday's sermon, then, I offer the following meditation on the Gospel. As with all the eMos, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution. No further permission is necessary.


The Holy Family seems to have traveled a good deal.

Most scholars agree that the real particulars of Joseph and Mary's living arrangements have been lost in time, and that all this dashing around the ancient Near East is a literary project on the part of those in the early Church who wanted it all to make sense in terms of Jewish prophecy: associating them with places mentioned in prophecies about the messiah. We do know that the entire set of birth narratives comes late in the history of the composition of the gospels: Mark, the earliest, doesn't have one, and Matthew's differs markedly from Luke's -- both end in Nazareth, but only Luke's begins there. They weren't looking at the same document when they sat down to write.

And John? The Jesus we meet there might as well have parachuted in.

The very earliest Christians didn't focus on birth stories at all -- for them, it was what would come later that was most important. The earliest texts in the gospel writings are not the birth narratives. They are the ones about the Passion and the Crucifixion of Jesus. These are earlier, even, than those about the Resurrection.

After gazing into the manger intently for weeks, we are about to leave it. We will have but the barest of glimpses of Jesus from here on out -- we see him once, as a precicious twelve-year-old -- until it is time for Him to begin His work.

As much as we love the baby, it is not the baby we seek. We come to Christ because we're looking for something. It is saving work now that we need. The baby doesn't save anybody, not yet. He has to grow up.

And so do we. Christmas plunges some people into feelings of sadness or anger or both: it is laden with the debris of dashed hopes, the thirst for magic, with the expectation of things being made right that can never be made right because they happened in the past. Why isn't my life like Martha Stewart's gorgeous Christmas dinner table, like her homemade marshmallows, perfect like her handmade wreaths, like the attractive happy people photographed enjoying themselves in her incredible kitchen?

But of course, Martha's life isn't as perfect as her wreaths, we now understand. She falters. She is more like us than we thought. We peer into the corners of celebrity sin even more intently than we peered into the manger at Bethlehem, more often and with more delight. It is a shabby delight: we are perversely pleased when someone famous gets caught doing something wrong. We crow over them, convict them of the charges against them, in advance of trial. We want them to be guilty. We want to punish them for being richer than we are, more beautiful, for being famous.

Lift your eyes, John the Baptist says, one more time. Look at what's going on. Leave your unfinished business in the realm of the unfinished, leave the celebrity sinners to learn accountability in their own way. We have work to do: learning, puzzling over parables and hard-to-digest ethical teachings. We must understand why it is the poor who are blessed, why the meek will inherit the earth, when we thought it was the strong. We must watch in amazement as 5,000 are fed from one little boy's lunch, and come to grips with the fact that there is enough food if we will only share it out fairly. And then we must cry out in anguished disbelief as the One who teaches us these things is ripped from us and killed, by a world not yet ready for the meek to inherit it.

No wonder we want to stay with the baby.

There is not much time. We don't have decades and decades in which to learn what it is to take up the cross and follow. We may not even have the remainder of this day, for tomorrow is promised to none of us. We must accept our peculiar meekness now, learn -- now -- not to fear poverty, so that we can seriously address the poverty of the world. We must learn to hunger for righteousness as much as we do for the current crop of toys.

We experience the transition from the birth stories to the adult ministry of Jesus as abrupt. We wish we had more information about his youth.

But I think we have as much as we need.
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