First Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21 OR 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  • Psalm 148  • Colossians 3:12-17  • Luke 2:41-52

There are two sets of readings for today (different versions of the lectionary) and I had written on the one we didn’t use before I realized my mistake! So this will be a bit disjointed, but I didn’t want to lose what I’d thought about this afternoon.

The beginning of the Gospel of John is a text of mystery: the sentences don’t entirely make sense. But the central point, that God came and lived among us. From him we have received “grace upon grace”, “grace and truth”. But this grace is only possible because, as John puts it, “the Word became flesh”. In the midst of the mystery of John’s text is Jesus’ humanity.

Christmas is, like Easter, a time when we are confronted with Jesus’ humanity. But at Christmas, we also see Christ as part of a family, connected to parents and neighbors. It is not accidental that most of the readings that make me giggle focus on this part of Jesus’ life. The Gospel of Luke today pushes us twelve years ahead from where we were yesterday. You can read it several ways: the gospel presents this as a sign of Jesus’ precocious wisdom, though his ministry is 18 years away.

I read this account from the perspective of Mary and Joseph. It’s hard to be a parent to God’s son, and the rules are not at all clear. They are evidently a pious family, heading to Jerusalem every year for Passover. This time, we have a slightly rebellious tween staying behind to ask questions and engage with the teachers in Jerusalem. His parents are worried: they had traveled a whole day from Jerusalem, and have to go back to find him. It takes three days to find him. Most parents I know would be extremely anxious about this. You can hear Jesus’ response, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house” as a sign of piety, but I’ve known enough 12 year olds in my life to hear it also as the voice of a child trying to claim independence, even if not quite ready for it. Like most 12 year olds, Jesus knows more than his parents.

Our secular Christmas celebrations are all happy and celebratory, but Jesus’ death is never far away in our readings. For the feast of Holy Innocents on Tuesday, we learn of Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing as refugees to Egypt, while all the children under two in Bethlehem were slaughtered. The gifts of the wise men include myrrh, used to anoint the dead. And today’s reading takes place at Passover in Jerusalem, the time of year and the place where Jesus will be killed by the Roman state. We are not allowed to forget pain and sorrow while we celebrate.

One of my favorite prayers comes from Evening Prayer II

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.

Book of Common Prayer, p. 124

Many years ago, this was prayed for me when I told my reading group that I was engaged. We always hope we can shield the joyous. But we cannot do so forever. We celebrate, as we do at Christmas. This year we are reminded, maybe more vividly than in other years, and that death is a part of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always

Third Sunday in Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9: Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:-4-7; Luke 3:7-18

“Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” What a great way to start listening to the readings! We move on to Paul, telling us to “Rejoice in the Lord always”. We are told that if, “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” offer our requests to God, “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”. This is a promise.

But don’t get too comfortable: we move from Paul’s promise to John’s preaching to the crowds. “You brood of vipers!” I can’t say that this is the most welcoming message I can imagine. It doesn’t invite you to feel good about yourself. And yet John is surrounded by crowds, evidently people who understand their need for a baptism of repentance, to change their minds, and their lives. And that change is not necessarily big: if you have two coats, give one away; if you have extra food, share. You don’t need to leave your job, even if you are a soldier or tax collector, just don’t take advantage of your position to exploit or extort others.

We have to repent, to change our minds and lives, to get to where we can, with Paul, rejoice in the Lord always. What John and Paul leave out is the way that this is something I at least need to do over and over. There’s a reason I am relieved that we say the confession every week. I get distracted by the world, and need to shift my focus back to Jesus. When I do, I can once again rejoice in the Lord, and sing with all my heart.

Changing our minds

2 Advent: Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Advent is a time of waiting, and waiting for change. But the readings today focus more on the change. In Baruch, we are called to “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” The image is concrete: we need to be dressed to celebrate. Baruch tells Jerusalem to rejoice that God has remembered them. “For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” What a promise: that God will smooth the ground to make your way safe! Luke refers back to that promise at the end of today’s gospel, seeking to create continuity between Jesus and the salvation history of Israel.

In the gospel, we also hear about John, preaching “a baptism of repentance”. Yesterday I read an essay by Professor Brittney Cooper, a Black feminist scholar, on repentance. It was part of a series in The Christian Century on “how I changed my mind”, and the title was “Why I came back around to repentance“. Cooper suggests that we should think of repentance not as cataloguing and confessing sins big and small, but changing our minds, as we get rid of ideas that separate us from God. “What if”, she asks, “at base, our faith practices were about a willingness to change our minds in ways that allowed us to bend more easily toward love, justice, mercy, and grace?”

The season of Advent is a season of waiting for change. We think of the change as the birth of Jesus. John preached a baptism of repentance. I have always understood sin as that which separates us from God, and repentance as bringing us back to God. If we understand this as a season of changing our minds, it moves our focus to how we, as a community of Christians, can collectively let go of ideas and actions that harm us and others, and follow God in trying to make “the crooked straight, and the rough ways smooth”. When we do that, we will be on the road to justice and love. And we will be ready to welcome Jesus into our lives.