Sermon by Eddie Self
December 4, 2013
I should be happy. It’s the Christmas season after all. I should be decorating the house. I should be sending cards to all the people I love. I should be buying gifts for people I care for (something like a Lowe’s promo code could help me with that now that I think about it). I should be feeling the warmth of the season. I should be excited about Christmas day getting closer. I should be thankful that I’ve lived to see another Christmas come. I should be singing songs of good tidings and angels. I should be filled with hope and joy. I should feel the warmth of Jesus being made new in me this Advent season. Isn’t that what the preacher said?
I shouldn’t be sad. It’s the Christmas season after all. I shouldn’t feel like decorating is just another chore that wrecks the house and just makes me feel worse. I shouldn’t feel like buying presents and sending cards are social obligations that I have to observe. I shouldn’t feel cold, hopeless, depressed, angry and empty. I shouldn’t feel like life and light have gone out of my life. I shouldn’t but I do. What’s the matter with me? What’s wrong with me? Why do I feel like I’m so different from everybody else?
This was an imaginary, or maybe not so imaginary, internal conversation, portions or all of which any of us might have had at one time or another. Those kinds of internal dialogs may happen any time but for many of us, the Christmas season seems to magnify them in frequency as well as in intensity.
Sometimes we feel like Charlie Brown looking for some sort of meaning to give us hope, and a Christmas raison d’être, finding, none, and ending up with feelings of hopelessness and depression. “Christmas is coming,” says Charlie to his friend Linus, “but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”
Phrases like, “Supposed to feel,” and the all-powerful word, “should,” carry special weight this time of year. After all, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” so Andy Williams sang, “our hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near.” Let’s not forget that “Everyone will be telling us, ‘Be of good cheer!'” We’re supposed to feel happy. It’s a social contract that we didn’t write but that we’re expected to sign. We should feel warm, glowing, excited and expectant as we await the rebirth of the Christ in our hearts. ….should…
As Christians we know the reason that we’ve set aside this season for celebration. God came to earth in flesh, in the baby Jesus. God loved us so much that God took on flesh so that we could share words of love, touches, laughter, tears, everything of life. This is good news but we simply can’t always connect to it. We might feel badly at ourselves because we aren’t feeling what we’re told we should feel or what we’re supposed to feel.
Friends, the plain truth that we all know is that life doesn’t follow the idealistic scripts we create, whether those scripts come from literature, art, music, marketing (especially), or even our own faith traditions. We may want to feel what Andy Williams sang about, or feel like Charlie Brown at the end of the program. We might love the way Currier and Ives and Norman Rockwell depicted Christmas on their canvases. We may long for the silent, holy night, and yearn to follow the shepherds to adore Jesus in the manger. Those aren’t bad things but the fullness of living includes pain. We suffer from the loss of people we love, from the disappointment of goals not achieved, from betrayal. We have to go through the storms of sickness in mind and body. These are part and parcel to living and they don’t suddenly stop when Santa gets to Macy’s or when the first candle of Advent is lit. We feel what we feel. That doesn’t mean that that there is something wrong with us or that we aren’t doing something right, or that our faith has waned. It means that we’re living real life and that we’re carrying some injuries to our spirits.
One of the reasons that I selected the Gospel text for tonight is that I like the way that Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth. While there is certainly a very mystical and holy aspect, Matthew’s writing provides us with a vision of the reality of the situation. While “real life,” isn’t the point of his narrative, the Gospel writer doesn’t shy away from the reality of what Mary, Joseph, and their new-born Jesus faced. There aren’t any shepherds adoring Jesus at the manger. There isn’t an angel choir proclaiming peace and good will. It’s just real life.
It isn’t hard to imagine the harshness of the situation with which Matthew begins Jesus’ story. We have a young couple, Mary and Joseph, engaged to be married. We need to understand that in their day that betrothal was a binding contract that could only be broken by death. Mary’s pregnancy, as we can imagine, violated that contract. The Torah demanded her death. Thankfully by this time in history, the rabbis had found solutions that did not demand capital punishment. The issue was, however, still humiliating, embarrassing, and shaming. Matthew doesn’t spell it all out but we can imagine the emotions that Mary and Joseph were experiencing. As a male, I don’t have any idea what Mary was feeling but drawing on my work as a hospital chaplain, where I’ve worked with similar situations, and just from living, I can make a guess at some of the things Mary might have been going through. She was a perhaps 14 year-old girl. No doubt she was feeling changes in her body that she couldn’t understand. She might have heard her mother and the village women tell her that she was pregnant and reeled in the shock of it. Remember, the way Matthew tells the story; we don’t have the Magnificat, where Mary praises God for God’s goodness. Gabriel doesn’t visit Mary in Matthew’s story. At this point in the story, she’s barely there at all. She’s the person betrothed to Joseph who turns up pregnant.
We know a bit more of Joseph but not much. We can guess that initially, he was shocked, hurt, embarrassed, angry, any range of these sorts of emotions. Let us not forget fear. In Matthew, it is Joseph that meets God’s messenger and receives the news about the true nature of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph too hears the angel’s warning about Herod’s horrible plot. He would have to take his family and flee their homeland for refuge in a strange far away country.
Here are people living in the hard reality of life. This time in a young couple’s life should have more happiness, more “We’ve only just begun; white lace and promises,” moments. That isn’t the case. There isn’t any evidence that “Away in a Manger,” is an accurate description of their experience.
What I find in these passages that I feel gives us so much hope is the way that Mary and Joseph kept on going. Joseph wasn’t willing to give up on the person he loved. (He should have divorced her.) Joseph was willing, divine oracle notwithstanding, to live life with the person that he loved. Similarly, Mary didn’t run away in shame. She too was willing to walk with her beloved. Because you and I understand living we can be sure that Mary and Joseph found ways to lean on one another as they journeyed. With God’s help they moved on, one day at a time. They didn’t know where life would take them. They couldn’t know what was all in store but they kept on going. Even though life took them to Egypt and back again they walked on knowing that the presence of God was with them.
Friends, I don’t mean to stand here and diminish or dismiss the pains and hardships we’re carrying by saying that we just need to keep going, stiff upper lip and all that. By no means would I be so trite. We have to feel what we feel and to lament what we need to lament, whatever season we’re in. If that means stopping for a while just to cry, then let us cry to God with all our hearts. My hope for all of us is that we can find God’s presence with us as we move through whatever valleys we’re or on whatever rocky roads we walk. Perhaps too, we can lean on one another as we journey. With God’s help maybe we can find the courage to reach out to a fellow traveler on life’s road and say “take my hand. I can’t make it on my own.” Maybe too we can watch for the ones we know are hurting and offer an arm to lean on or a shoulder to cry on. Whatever we do, as a good friend once taught me, let’s not should on ourselves, especially when it comes to our Christmas blues.