It’s now December 26, which means Christmas in the culture around us is over. Stores that have had Christmas items on sale since at least October have moved on. The “Merry Christmas” greetings I exchanged with a stranger yesterday have stopped until next December. And the irony of perhaps my least favorite Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” is that as many times as we may have heard it during the days leading up to yesterday, we are much less likely to hear it during the actual twelve days of Christmas–especially by the time we would get to the lords a-leaping, pipers piping, and drummers drumming in early January.
Honestly, I’m fine with that kind of Christmas being behind us until it begins again next year. (Maybe it now begins after Labor Day? I remember hearing a radio station mark when there were one hundred shopping days left, which would have been on September 16.) But the other dimension of Christmas, the one where waiting has now turned into adoration–I feel like I need a lot more of this kind of Christmas, or I will have missed the point.
So, thankfully, generations of Christians before us have given us a longer Christmas, and rather than being done with it for the year, we are entering the second of our twelve days. There is a meaningful way in which this is reflected in the traditional scripture readings for these twelve days, which helps us to approach Christmas as a season into early January, rather than a single day. It may be surprising to follow those readings–even just the ones in the gospels–for the first time and discover that a number of them aren’t the story of the night of Jesus’ birth.
So, to get our feet wet in the themes of Christmas beyond Christmas Day, we’ll stay with our source from yesterday–Luke’s description of Christmas through the eyes of Mary. It fits, if we think about it, that other stories would belong within the Christmas theme of adoration of our incarnate savior–and it’s appropriate that more of those stories would come from Mary’s perspective than anywhere else. Loving mothers don’t stop gazing in wonder at their children just because the day of their birth has past. Neither did Mary, and again following her example, neither shall we.
We discussed yesterday how Mary pondered (and Luke emphasized) the ways that Jesus’ birth pointed to his identity as Israel’s promised king, and Luke continues to underscore this in the other, less emphasized, “longer-Christmas” stories of Jesus’ childhood in that same chapter. Mary and Joseph took their baby to the temple in Jerusalem according to the prescribed custom for presenting their firstborn son as holy to the Lord. As they were there, visitors (as unexpected as the shepherds in Bethlehem had been earlier) came to them suddenly and again pointed to the child’s identity and his future. One of them was an old man named Simeon, who took Jesus in his arms, saying he could then die in peace after having seen God’s salvation. (Adults can still behave strangely around babies, but “Okay, now I’m ready to die” was never a response after anyone held either of my kids.) Luke says that Mary and Joseph were amazed at the things being said about their baby, and then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
Those aren’t exactly the kinds of words a new mother would expect to hear at her baby's dedication ceremony. Mary must have wondered what all that the birth in Bethlehem could mean–for her, for Joseph, for the child she adored, and for their life together. I wonder if, after hearing Simeon’s forewarning, there was ever a moment when she felt a tinge of regret of her previous words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” but that wondering probably reflects more of my own experience than anything the scripture tells us of Mary. There have been times that I trusted God on something, then things didn’t turn out the way I wanted, and my first reaction was to think that I could have handled my life better by myself. This part of Christmas through Mary’s eyes makes me wonder what kind of immense trust it would take to hear that my child’s life will be full of opposition, that a sword will pierce my soul, and yet still to continue to entrust my life and that of those who matter most to me into the hands of the one who invited me into all of this in the first place.
Perhaps one of the ways we can practice that kind of trust is by doing something that is simultaneously very simple, very radical, and often very difficult: to develop a habit of wasting time with God in solitude. Surprisingly, this is just as difficult for introverts as extroverts, because all of us would rather continue the incessant work of trying to secure our own happiness than to simply be alone with God, whatever may surface between us, and the risk of finding out whether or not God’s love for us is as real and as steadfast as the scriptures claim. We can get by without this habit, but if we try to do so, and then a sword pierces our soul, what will we do? Will what we have believed about the stories of Bethlehem and the rest of the Bible be sufficient for us then–or is it possible that we can do as Mary apparently did and simply continue in a trusting openness to God?
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.