First Sunday after Christmas Day
Christmas Eve, we huddled up in a back parking lot in Houston’s east downtown warehouse district, our congregation pushed out into the night by a blown transformer in the space we rent an hour before the service. As we made a semi-circle lit up by headlights and the Christ candle, a child lay belly down on the asphalt, coloring in his coloring book as if it were any other Sunday morning. We sang through all the carols in our bulletins as a makeshift liturgy, while a hundred yards or so away was a large homeless encampment under an I-10 overpass. We said our closing prayer over the rumble of a large freight train before sending folks to their homes.
Nothing went as planned that evening. We’re a church that pays close attention to beauty and aesthetics, and we strive for excellence in worship, but it was a strange night of off the cuff plans and finding ourselves a bit vulnerable, listening to the city as we worshiped together. In the moment, it reminded me of the Christmas story, the holy family on the move, looking for a place to birth the Christ. Upon further reflection, it reminds me also of the gospel text for this week, our pastor like Joseph, moving us discerningly from the building, to one part of the parking lot, and then to another where we would be safer.
Of course, the liturgical movements of our evening had a pedestrian metaphoric quality to them, while the actual story of Joseph moving his wife and child to Egypt, and then back to Judea before finally making a home as a stranger in Galilee is far more harrowing.
The danger of that story reminds me more of stories I’ve heard from friends of border crossings along the southern US border, dangerous retellings of the wilderness and facing border patrol, money paid for safety, and the political atmosphere around who is welcome here in “our” country, and who is not.
Reading the gospel text this week, it’s difficult to ignore the political nature of the story at hand. And once we pay attention to its politics, it’s harder yet to avoid mapping our current political realities over the top of it. The parallels are striking. You can make the connections in your own mind and see what questions begin to nag you.
But in my reading, I was reminded again of the ways state political power feels threatened by the power of the church, and of religion more generally. Moving back in the story a bit, it’s clear in earlier parts of Matthew 2 that Herod has figured out that whoever it is the wise men have come seeking is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. And in his hubris, he imagines that simply killing all children of the same age will take care of the problem. He both fears the Messiah and underestimates the power of God. A couple thousand years later, the question of the state’s power and its relationship to religion still plays out, as America often puzzles still with how to interpret “separation of church and state.”
But it’s Joseph who catches my attention most in this story. I have puzzled over him a great deal in thinking about this text – his overall role in the story of the Christ child, and the ways he’s not really rounded out as a character in the gospel narratives. We know he’s good, that he doesn’t send Mary away. We know he works with his hands. We know that he is attuned to the voice of God such that when an angel comes to him in dreams, he listens and obeys, not once but multiple times. He is faithful to Mary and her child, inhabiting his role in the divine drama unfolding in Israel without pomp and circumstance, but rather with humility.
Thinking about the characters in this story, he’s the one I find myself drawn to. In Advent, it was Mary who had captured my imagination, the Magnificat and prayers for a world made right. I have for years loved the quote by Meister Eckhart about birthing the Christ in our own time and culture, for we are all mothers of God. And in other seasons of the year, it’s Christ himself I imagine inhabiting – being Christ to one another, walking the way of the cross, and so on. But here in Christmastide, it’s Joseph.
As a metaphor for one aspect of the church’s work in the world, he’s a difficult character to build easy imperatives around. It isn’t immediately easy to see what it is we should do, if we’re walking in the way of Joseph – other than what anyone would do in getting their family out of danger and into safety. But this is more human than strictly Christian.
For my part, I have never encountered an angel of the Lord in a dream, and often I have wished for the sort of foreknowledge of danger Joseph is afforded. Imagining inhabiting Joseph is harder work.
But I find myself wondering how many times before Joseph had encountered an angel of the Lord in a dream. It seems that he doesn’t doubt or second guess the voice of the Lord, as far as we know. Instead, when God speaks, he perks up his spiritual ears, and then acts in decisive ways, faithful ways that keep the story going. I wonder if he was formed in such a way that he had habits of listening for the divine which made it easier to say “yes” to the angel’s instructions.
I have people in my life who are wise, who maybe wouldn’t claim to “hear from God” in such an audacious way, like “an angel of the Lord came to me and told me to tell you…” – but who still sense the movements of God, not because they are specially highly favored by God, but simply because they are faithful to show up to practices which have opened their lives to the divine touch. They don’t tout their closeness to God, and sometimes I imagine feel very far away from God. But from the outside looking in, I can notice that something is moving in them and through them.
The practices aren’t showy or sexy, the kind of thing you can build an instagram following for, or market as some kind of spiritual magic you can tap into for a small fee.
Rather, they’re practices of faithfulness lived over the course of a lifetime – things like reading the bible painfully slow, one verse at a time in lectio divina; or sitting in silence for twenty minutes first thing in the morning in listening prayer; or showing up to the same community week after week for years on end even in the midst of deep disagreements; or receiving the bread and the wine week after week after reciting the same liturgy for decades. Perhaps you know of other such practices that sustain your life with God, or those of others.
It’s not as if practices work transactionally, as if these acts are some magical key that unlocks a direct pathway to the voice of God. Rather, it’s that incidentally over time, through living faithfully and paying attention, they’ve learned by nearly imperceptible movements how to recognize the Spirit in their own contexts, and then they are courageous to act in response.
I wonder if Joseph’s humility and faithfulness are of this kind. If his story tells us anything, it’s that the angel of the Lord can come in dreams to ordinary folks, and sometimes infant Messiahs have been spared by listening and moving decisively.
Tyrants will always exist. Corrupt kings are everywhere these days, and sensing their power threatened, they will go on enacting their horrific and murderous attempts to be immortal. Knowing what to do in the face of such power plays is harder work; I often sense in myself an urge to act decisively, but with little idea of how.
Angels of the Lord don’t always come with the kind of blinding clarity we would like them to, but by inhabiting a politics of faithfulness like Joseph’s, when the time comes for us to act, perhaps our Christian practices will have opened up our spiritual ears that we might be attentive to even the smallest movements of the divine and discern how to be faithful in each moment.
Image Credit: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Flight into Egypt