Today’s offering is a simple one as the “festive frenzy” sets in: watch the (what I’ve been told by a few is actually quite nauseating) animated version of Joy to the world below – paying careful attention to the sheep.
What went through your mind when, in the midst of all the joy and wonder, the one sheep went out into the darkness to sit sadly and gaze out at the surrounding hills?
For me, I am struck in Luke’s retelling of the shepherd’s story by the fact that those people of the land who came and saw the Son of God in the cradle just had to share the news with the city folk who were unaware.
Today, I invite you to share in some small way, the joy you’ve been given in Christ with another.
The setting is a field near Bethlehem. It is a summer’s night; a good time to be out in the open after the day’s scorching heat. Shepherds are tending their sheep; this is their workplace – away from the hustle and bustle of city life and city conveniences. Jesus has just been born in a stable not far away.
Suddenly, they are flooded with light, an angel announces Jesus’ birth, and then – then an incredible thing happens: a great choir of angels appears, singing praise to God in heaven and peace to us on earth.
The Saviour has born in the town of Bethlehem – the Messiah, the Lord. He is the crocus in the desert, the water in the wilderness, the way of Holiness through which God’s people can enter into Zion with everlasting joy on their lips as sorrow and sighing flee away (see Isaiah 35).
And the response is a greeting that spans the the entire range of creation from the angels’ song in heaven to the shepherds’ welcome on earth as the highest and the lowliest join in the wonder and welcome of Jesus born for us.
In this time of drought and devastating fire, of deep dissatisfaction with politicians and climate-change deniers, of unprecedented levels of domestic violence and depression it is highly significant that the prayer that Jesus will one day teach his followers to pray – on earth as it is in heaven – is made manifest in this moment of his birth, out on the periphery, among the am ha-aretz: the people of the land – for they are the ones who know most deeply the fragility of life and the hard work required to survive, let alone flourish in the dry places ….
May our thoughts today express all the melodies and harmonies of heaven as we ask for the open hand of God to bless the land and all the creatures on it.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
To all looking for Joy in the midst of the world’s troubles …
One of my all-time favourite movies is an animated film titled “Inside Out” which is set almost entirely inside the head of an 11-year old girl named Riley. Inside there, five main characters – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust – work (somewhat together) to help her navigate her way through her world.
It’s well worth watching – on your own or with the grandkids – as the manic pixie-like character named Joy struggles to keep Riley happy after a stressful cross-country move and a difficult period at work for Riley’s father by dismissing the voices of all the other characters.
In the end, Joy discovers that her significance is much more than making Riley feel upbeat and positive all the time and that the experience of life as meaningful and worthwhile requires that Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust live and work alongside her too.
As we light the third candle in our advent wreath, we open ourselves up to Joy of the shepherds who were the first to receive the glorious news of the birth of Christ, the promised Messiah. The purpose behind the angel’s tidings was to bring good news that would cause great joy for all the people: people living under the oppressive force of Roman power, religious legalism, and poverty.
As the pronouncement sent the shepherds on a journey from their fields to seek the truth for themselves, may we bear glad witness to God-with-us on the highest mountains and in the shadows of the deepest valleys.
Over the past week we have journeyed with the holy family whose story is a story of the re-creation of the universe in that Christ’s coming changes the way we understand ourselves, each other, the Creator, and the created world around us.
As it is in all families, their story is one of unexpected journeys, ~ of adapting to unforeseen circumstances, ~ of travelling together (and sometimes apart), ~ of making room for people who pop in (often at the most inconvenient times – but more on that over the next two weeks), ~ of making home for characters who come from the strangest places but want or need to stay (yes, I’m talking about the donkey), ~ of the profound influence that we have through blood and through presence; an impact that does not seem as limited by time and distance as we sometimes feel or imagine, ~ of how complicated it can be making sense day by day by day of who we are and whose we are and where we fit in and outside of the the family order.
Above all, their story is the story of a God who chooses to be relational, though that’s messy and hard and risky and, indeed, as we read further in the Gospels we see teenage Jesus causing his parents anguish at the temple, Joseph disappearing from the story, Mary pushing her son into the limelight when it’s not yet time, Jesus probably causing some offence to his siblings when he identified his followers as his brothers ….
So I invite you, over the course of this weekend, to pray for the family of your heart – especially if some of those relationships are messy or hard or risky right now – as you respond in faith to a grace-filled invitation into an ever extending family formed by the Father’s own hand, liberated by the love of the Son, and held together by the Spirit of Truth who testifies to our belonging.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
I’m the first born child in my family: reliable, conscientious, structured, cautious, and achieving.
I received both the blessing of being the centre of my parents’ universe for the couple of years before my brother arrived and the not-so-blessing of being the one on which they practised their parenting skills.
I distinctly remember mandatory bedtimes, star charts and chore wheels, strict adherence to age restrictions on computer games and movies (especially when I was going out with friends), and a fervent interest in my education – a.k.a homework and study time – that seemed far less rigorously applied to my siblings …
… while the burdens on me as the eldest to set a good example and take charge (though I think it was probably phrased more as “look after your brothers”) while my parents weren’t home multiplied.
Being firstborn had more implications for Jesus than the influence of birth order on human personality: in his Jewish background, it entitled him to a double inheritance and also signified that he was predestined to serve as a priest unless “redeemed” (see Numbers 3:45-47).
As Mary wrapped her firstborn in cloths and laid him in the manger, I wonder if expectations and entitlements were on her mind; or if she was simply lost in awe at the sight, the sound, the smell of he who embodied a new beginning – both for her and Joseph as “learner” parents and for the whole world that seemed blissfully unaware of and unprepared for the miracle in their midst.
What “firsts” may the future hold for you as your love for Mary’s firstborn grows?
Today was definitely a donkey day for me: a day of slow, but determined plodding through a never-ending to-do list of administrative tasks and unpleasant chores accompanied by the incessant throbbing of a mild lack-of-sleep-lack-of-coffee headache ….
Picture the poor little donkey that had to walk all of those miles to Bethlehem with a heavily pregnant Mary on his back.
Picture it, because although commonly portrayed in art and on Christmas cards, dear donkey does not appear at all in the Gospel accounts (though the tradition does stem from other early Christian writings).
Yet, it is a treasured part of the Godly Play story of the Holy Family:
Here is the donkey that Mary rode when she and Joseph went to Bethlehem to be counted by the Roman soldiers. Mary was about to have a baby, so it was hard for her to walk. Sometimes she rode on the donkey. It is also hard to ride on a donkey when you are about to have a baby. Sometimes she got down and walked.
The donkey was in the stable when the baby was born. He was surprised to find a baby in the feed box, the manger, where he expected to find his breakfast.
I love that the donkey has made it in to our traditions, our stories, our imaginings. Just like I love the way that God makes it in to each moment in which I am open and attentive (and even sometimes when I’m not) – especially on mundane days like these.
So, take a breath; see how God shows up – and maybe even take a moment to share that story with another because it might be just what they need to get through another day.
I remember writing, in my late teenage years, a nativity play for our junior Sunday School to put on for the church at our annual presentation evening. There was a full script, complete with carols and dance routines that ensured each child could play a part.
Joseph was one of the main characters, of course: he is Jesus’ dad after all. But after weeks of rehearsal, on the actual night Joseph was a no-show. And I would have had no show without my middle brother who (very begrudgingly) stepped in to the part just a few minutes before the curtain was raised.
I will never forget the sight of him shuffling uncomfortably across the stage, eyes alternating “adoring glances” between the heights of heaven and the white-wrapped doll in his arms, to Joseph’s Song. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA and AWWWWWWWWWWW!
The real Joseph takes a bow from Scripture shortly after the story of his son’s birth. He is vaguely referenced in the term “his parents” in Jesus’ presentation and circumcision at the temple eight days after the birth and, again, twelve years later when they lost Jesus in “his Father’s house” after a trip to Jerusalem to observe the Passover.
Yet his imprint is unmistakable in Jesus being identified as both the carpenter’s son and a carpenter himself.
Matthew 1:18-25 is headed in the NIV Bible “Joseph accepts Jesus as his son.” Today, I invite you to read his story and to think about the part that your own father has (or has not) played in your life and what mark that has made on who you are.
I’d also like to leave you with Joseph’s Song … because I still find the words beautiful as I search for my own place in the world and find my rest in my Father’s arms.
Conception. Gestation. Delivery. What clean words we can use for the messy act of bringing another life into the world.
With my own first-born, it was a struggle to conceive. And then a struggle to carry him due to persistent morning sickness well into my third trimester – which only seemed to end after a threatened miscarriage. And then a struggle to give birth to him as nothing went according to plan. And then a struggle to hold him as we’d been separated for hours by an emergency surgery and I was so tired and he was so small and long and fragile-looking and I was afraid of dropping him. And then a struggle to feed him after a bout of pneumonia and several rounds of antibiotics – and he grew longer and thinner and I felt like a miserable failure at motherhood just a few months in.
So when I read these simple, clean lines from the first gospel, I must admit that I want to roll my eyes and mutter something unflattering about men telling women’s stories:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
It is good news that God’s promises find fulfilment in the birth of Jesus. It is GREAT news that, in Christ, God is with us – yesterday, today, and always.
But I do wonder if Mary’s feet swelled or what she did in the absence of ginger biscuits to quell her nausea. How she felt having to make the trip to Bethlehem or giving birth far away from home. If she was worried about what this “Son of the Most High” might come out looking like. What she dreamed for his future. If she fretted over what parenting strategies would be best in bringing up the Messiah. Whether she and Joseph quarrelled about this messy miracle that they really hadn’t planned for. How she felt at the foot of the cross on which hope died … and at the empty tomb when hope rose again.
As we continue our faith journey today, I invite you to fill a page with messy thoughts: your ponderings, wonderings, and imaginings of what it may have been like to be Mary, the mother of God.
And maybe you want to spend some time praying for families who find themselves in the messy situations of life where love and hope and joy and peace are hard to find at present.
As we reflect on Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem today, I invite you to look around the space in which you currently find yourself.
What do you love about it?Do you consider it a safe-haven, a sanctuary?
At the time that Mary and Joseph received news that she was carrying the Christ-child, they were living in the sanctuary of their community in Nazareth. But, a Roman decree was issued for all to register for the census in their home towns that the Empire might keep careful tax of her citizens – and taxpayers.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
Angel visitations. An unexpected pregnancy. And now – an undesirable journey of some 25 kilometres at an inconvenient time!
So, today, I invite you to let this reflection interrupt what you are doing and move you from where you are.
You don’t have to journey 25kms but do take a wander outside, around the block, or simply into a different part of the building where you may be. As you move, picture Mary and Joseph undertaking their journey and try to imagine yourself in the story. The following questions may help you:
how do they feel about going?
what are their fears?
how do they travel?
is it just the two of them or do they travel with a group?
what is the weather like?
how do 25kms feel to a pregnant woman?
God, you are on the move. Move us too. Even when it’s challenging. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when we’re comfortable where we are right now. Move us that we might see things from a different perspective, and put ourselves in another’s shoes, and be counted as people of faith as we follow you. God, you are on the move.
To all my travelling companions on this special journey …
Today we light the second candle of our Advent wreath: the Bethlehem candle which represents faith and reminds us of the journey that Mary and Joseph undertook from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to meet Roman census requirements and, more importantly, in fulfilment of what the prophets had foretold.
In a Godly Play room, the Holy Family is a centre of focus for other stories as they hold deep significance for our faith. Their story is the story of the re-creation of the Universe for, from Mary’s womb, new life comes; not just a new life but the new life of God for the whole world.
Christ’s incarnation changes everything: it changes the way we understand ourselves, each other, the Creator, and the created world around us.
The Holy Family is the focus of attention in the Christmas story with the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem setting others on their own journeys too: the shepherds travel from nearby fields to see if the Good News that they receive from the angels is true, and the wise men travel from afar to bear their gifts to the newborn King.
As we light the second candle today, I wonder what journeys you will be undertaking during this time. ~ Will you be heading off to visit with friends and family? ~ Will they be coming to visit you? ~ What journeys do you remember from your past that hold special significance? ~ What trips might you be looking forward to? ~ And what new life might the Christ-child open up for you?