I love song titles which ask a question. A question mark in the title means the lyrics are full of story, the best songs tell a story. If the best story is that of Jesus’ birth, then it follows that all songs about His birth should be titled with a question.
“What child is this?”
More than any other year, 2020 and I have asked each other more questions than I was prepared for. Will I serve my community? How can I help? How can I help those I usually look away from? What are my responsibilities? Who do I vote for? What do I believe? Why do I feel guilty for still having a job? What do I say to my friend whose mother is in the hospital? What parts of my ‘routine’ have to change? These questions, of course, all have answers. Answers found in the Bible. Answers found through prayer. Sometimes the answer is laughter, sometimes tears, sometimes surrounded by those you love, and sometimes completely alone.
“Why lies He in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?”
While not usually thought of as the theological lynchpin of the song, this question carries an important message. Jesus could have been born anywhere, to any wealthy family, by the warmth of a fire, in any palace. For me, it is His manger birth which reminds me of the earthly side of Jesus. It is easy to think of Him in brilliant white robes and to picture Him in Heaven. It is much harder to imagine Him stubbing His toe on a rock He didn’t see, getting sand in His mouth while playing in Egypt, or scraping His knee chasing a dog down a side street. Why lies He in such mean estate? To remind all of us that the King of Kings started His earthly life in a small wooden structure, open to the elements, full of animals and their waste, under a bright star, “whom shepherds guard and angels sing”. As we contemplate all of the carnage of 2020, and struggle to make sense of it all, the clearer it becomes that we cannot make sense of any of it. That, family, is the point. That is faith. That is the manger birth. Despite being unable to see any of you for months on end, the church is more alive now than ever before. Grad student peers of mine who have never prayed a day in their lives have asked me to pray with them. Charitable donations are skyrocketing nationwide despite people having generally less money in their pockets. Hope and faith are alive and well in 2020. The struggles of humanity, the pain and suffering, the unanswerable questions, THAT is why Jesus had a manger birth. That is why He lies in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding.
“The King of Kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone Him.”
The lyric is clear: loving hearts. Not Republican hearts, not Democrat hearts. Not ‘Boomer’ hearts, not Millennial hearts. Not gay hearts, or straight hearts, or cis hearts, or trans hearts, or non-binary hearts. Not black hearts, or white hearts, or Latinx hearts, or Middle Eastern hearts. Not rich hearts, or poor hearts. LOVING hearts. Jesus brings salvation to every loving heart, despite any of the labels and walls we attempt to build in secular society. Let loving hearts enthrone Him. Whether you have gold, frankincense, or myrrh to offer; or all you have to offer is a song. The lyric is very clear here as well: peasant or king. With so many uncertainties in our future, 2021 promises to be a year of equal change and turmoil. Through all the upheaval there is a constant, the salvation brought by Jesus. His manger birth. Let Jesus be the hope you are seeking. Wise men still seek Him. “Haste, haste to bring Him laud”, “Hail, hail the Word made flesh”, “Joy, joy for Christ is born”.
Last night, one of my very good friends Claire, who lives in Spokane, Washington, FaceTimed me out of the blue and said, “I just need a good sad girl/hopeful girl chat,” and I knew exactly what she meant. Claire and I joke a lot about being “sad girls,” girls that listen to sad music on purpose, love overcast days, and Halloween.
One day when I was living in Spokane back in October, a time where it was actually difficult to be there because I didn’t have a community yet, Claire called me and said, “Let’s go on a drive.” It was of course an overcast day and we played very moody music as we traveled around Spokane, not a specific destination in mind. We ended up at a park that was Claire’s favorite place to go and stood along the cliffsides and looked out over the valley and the changing leaves. It was breathtaking. That night I had bought tickets to go to a concert for a very moody, sad artist who I love and I went all by myself.
That day sticks out in my mind so clearly. It was a day where I felt hopeful of the future. Everything was overcast and grey, but Claire still called me. Everything was gloomy and sad, but I was still able to witness beauty. I went to a concert by myself and felt known because the lyrics that Lucy Dacus and Liza Anne were singing were true to my life.
I think oftentimes hope encompasses the small things that urge you to continue on. Sometimes you’re lucky and hope encompasses the big moments, but most of the time, it is small. It is the little candlelight saying, “Come on, follow me, we still have places to go, music to listen to, people to love.” Hope just asks that you would be present and that you would try.
I really think that’s all God has said to me this year, “Please be present, please try, because if you don’t, you’ll miss out on the little hopeful moments that you love about life.”
So last night, Claire and I had a sad girl/hopeful girl chat about what was coming for us in the future. We shared dreams and worries and small moments that kept us going. We were present and trying, and that is all that hope asks of me.
Prayer: Creator of hope, Would you make space for me to see the moments that remind me of goodness? Would you make space for me to see the moments that remind me of peace and wholeness? It has not been an easy year, but you are still here, you still call me, you still take me on drives because you love me. Thank you, that even though I sometimes do not believe that hope is present, you believe it and hold it for me and you have others in my life that believe it and hold it for me as well. Amen.
Matthew 2:11-14 An angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying “Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy Him.” So he got up, took the child and His mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt.
This is not the first time an other-worldly messenger has appeared to Joseph in a dream. One chapter before this passage, in a dream, Joseph is instructed to keep Mary as his wife. Reason granted him the idea of a quiet divorce to avoid public shame. However, in both instances, Joseph allows divine intervention to alter his plans, even forgoing temporal logic.
Over the course of this year, it has grown increasingly harder to dream (and I don’t mean sleeping at night). Even dreaming about the next year or next day is hard. Logic says that any dreams or plans are probably going to be altered, so why even do it? However, I think God is inviting us to dream with him, to hope and be radically optimistic that he is still moving and working in the world today. How can you let yourself dream big in this season?
What strikes a deeper cord within me about this passage is that Egypt, formerly a place of great oppression for the Jewish people, becomes a place of refuge for the Christ Child. God is a master in the work of redemption. Everyone has an Egypt in their life – a place or thing that traps us in the shadow of our former self. What would it look like for your Egypt to become a place of refuge? To cultivate the redemptive work of God in ourselves, we must look to the least favorite parts of ourselves and invite God in. When we allow a healing work to occur within us, we then invite everyone in our sphere of influence to receive their own healing.
God, would you give us the strength to dream big with you in this year where dreaming seems silly. Help us to hope without ceasing and invite you into the places within ourselves that we think are past redemption. Thank you that hope does not come from the condition of the world and there is no place where you are not. Amen.
Luke 2: 21-38 “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.Guided by the Spirit, Simeoncame into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeontook him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servantin peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother 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.’ There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
One of my favorite Christmas Hymns (and there are tons, tucked away for this Season of Christmas running post-Thanksgiving until the end of January!), is “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” We await Christmas in this new church year for a matter of four weeks of Advent” known in our tradition as Ordinary time. But 2020 has had very little ordinary time. Our world is fighting a virus and our nation is wrestling with a divide that we have tucked away for too long. If ever there was a time to hold onto hope, it is now.
In a season of waiting to remember the birth of Jesus into a broken and divided world I look to Simeon and Anna. Living in an occupied city, both have longed their entire lives for the Messiah, Son of David. Their anticipation was not a matter of days, or weeks, or months but part of a longer period of longing for God’s promise to be fulfilled to God’s people over centuries.
The passage tells us that Simeon “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (v 25-6) Simeon’s hope came from the Holy Spirit and upon seeing the fulfillment of this promise breaks into song.
The gospel gives us less information about Anna, also a prophet, who “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (v 37) She too was filled with longing based in hope for the birth of a child who would bring the redemption of Jerusalem. (v 38) She was sustained by the life she was living. Both centered their lives in the temple. At Oconee Street UMC, a church on the hill, we do not center our lives only in our temple. It has been mostly empty for months and yet who we are to each other and our community continues to live on. It is an embodiment of hope. We are a church family that is intentional about living as Christ. But even in our action we still wait, we still hope.
Our Hope, like that of these two, comes from God through the Holy Spirit. We may not have the assurance of Simeon or the fasting rituals of Anna but our expectations, our desire as followers of the Babe of Bethlehem sustain us. In my lifetime, in this season, I had hoped our healing would be greater and deeper. Like that hymn my hope remains that Jesus will release us from our fears and sins and bring the gracious kindom near. Hope brings us strength and consolation; it sustains us in our despair. This hope also calls us to do our part, not in celebration, but in this waiting to move to listening, action and healing.
Oh God of waiting, you gifted us with Jesus, a babe long hoped for. Send your Spirit upon us as you did for Simeon and Anna. You can release us from our sins and fears. Help us move our Hope to Love so that we may do our part in the gracious kindom.