Christmas 1: Child Is the Father of the Man

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they [Mary & Joseph] brought him [Jesus] 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, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in 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.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40)

Theologian Karl Barth once wrote, “The ontological determination of humanity is grounded in the fact that one man [sic] among all others is the man Jesus.” This is a convoluted, very theologian-y way of saying that for Christians, part of how we understand being human is in recognizing that Jesus, too, was human. For Barth, the fact that Jesus, the Christ, the “beloved son, with whom [God] is well pleased,” lived and breathed and ate and drank and loved and laughed and lost and died and all those other very human things – this is important.

In this week’s passage from Luke, we see one of the few glimpses the Gospels have to offer of Jesus’ childhood. So I’m led to ask this week: if Christians should, as Barth suggests, view our humanity in the light of Jesus’ humanity, what does it mean to say that Jesus was once a little kid?

From Rankin/Bass’ classic holiday special “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”

Christmastime, for me, a particularly opportune time to reflect on the significance of childhood. Christmas is, in the words of the great humorist Jean Shepherd, the locus “around which the entire kid year revolve[s].” Certainly, for the child who has grown and returns home for the holidays, it conjures the spirit of kid-dom better than just about anything else. For my family, as is the case for so many families, our Christmas traditions have become thoroughly ritualized. We come back each year to the same house in Deadwood, SD, in which I spent the first 18 years of my life. We put up the same decorations. We drive the same route to look at neighborhood Christmas lights. We watch the same corny-cum-nostalgic Christmas movies we always watched (I credit Rankin/Bass with my enduring love of 60s kitsch). We eat the same foods we always ate (red and green chili enchiladas).

There’s something comforting and beautiful in this yearly routine, stringing a thread of continuity between the person I was at 8 and the person I am at 24. At the same time, though, when I’m home for the holidays as an adult, it’s all too easy for the person I am at 24 to slip back into the person I was at 8, or at 16; it’s all too easy for me to revert to the (not always perfectly healthy) relational patterns of my childhood. Indeed, for many, coming home for the holidays means regressing back to a person and a life we would rather have left behind, putting us back into the boxes we have worked so hard to climb out of in the intervening years.

This most recent Christmas Eve, though, I found myself performing another ritual—this one rather newer in my life than our yearly viewing of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”—that helped me see the relationship between the 8-year-old Tom and the 24-year-old Tom, the relationship between childhood and adulthood, in a new light.

A group shot from the evening prayer on St. Peter’s Square from my Taizé Rome 2012 pilgrimage. (Note: I am not in this photo, although I believe I may have taken it.)

Over New Year’s 2012-2013, I found myself traveling with ~20 other young adults from South Dakota on a pilgrimage to the Taizé Community’s Annual European Meeting in Rome. It was a tremendously beautiful and meaningful experience, but also a challenging one – anyone who has attempted to travel with a large group of young people, without the aid of cell phones or any knowledge of the local language, will know exactly what I am talking about. On New Year’s Eve, however, after several days of wandering around the city in varying states of jet lag, wonder, frustration, adrenaline-fueled exhilaration, and, at least in my case, existential turmoil (more about that another time), a group of us gathered together in the apartment we were sharing in the Roman suburb of Ostia to draw a Zen Card (follow the link for a description). Whichever card we drew, that would become our intention for the New Year. Our little ritual offered a much-needed opportunity to re-center ourselves in the midst of a sometimes overwhelming adventure.

So the last couple of Christmases, a few friends who shared that pilgrimage to Rome and I have held a midnight Christmas Eve prayer in the manner of Taizé in Rapid City, after which we have gathered around a table and once again drawn Zen Cards, to memorialize our mutual adventure and to set intentions together for the coming year. This year, I drew the card “Zen Mind”:

Experience all things with the enthusiasm of a child, as if you were seeing it for the first time. This is the Zen mind, always new, always aware, always that of a beginner.

I repeated those words to myself all the way back to Deadwood following the service. After an hour of wintery driving, I parked at the bottom of the snowy hill on which my childhood home is perched and stepped out of the car into what I can only describe with the clichéd phrase “winter wonderland.” It had already snowed a couple days prior, and the landscape was covered in a foot-and-a-half of flawless white powder. As I watched, new snow was just beginning to fall, so that when I looked up into streetlamps, each snowflake caught the light and glittered in a pixelated mist of fairytale ice crystals.

I had lived through two-dozen Christmases in this town, experienced hundreds of snowfalls. There was nothing so special or different about this one, really. And yet, for whatever reason, this Christmas it was as though I had never seen snow before in my life. I was enchanted. A snowflake fell on my cheek, and I can’t quite put it into words, but at that moment I experienced the most profound rush of gratitude; it felt as though it were the only snowflake to have ever fallen, and that it had been meant since all eternity to touch my bare skin at that moment. I laughed aloud in the night at the beauty and the wonder of it all.

The Black Hills of South Dakota–my home–in winter.

By the time I made it up the hill, the moment had passed, and I promptly fell asleep in the same bedroom I had occupied since the age of 5. But that Christmas Morning snowfall sticks in my mind as a moment, however fleeting, when I think I might have truly seen the world through a child’s eyes.

It’s easy, at this time of year, to check out when watching that same old Christmas special. It’s easy to get into the same arguments with our parents, or our siblings. It’s easy to revert back to that insecure child, debilitatingly shy, so desperate to be liked and accepted that he never felt comfortable to just be himself. But we do not have to be the same person we were as a child in order to “experience all things with the enthusiasm of a child.” To be childlike is a very different thing than to be childish.

Which brings us back around to that question: what does it mean for Christians to say that Jesus was once a little kid? How can the Child of Bethlehem illuminate our own Inner Child? At its simplest, I would describe a Christian as “someone who seeks to follow Christ,” however they understand that. At this time of year, Christians celebrate the birth of the Christ. And if Jesus, too, was once a child, for whom every experience was new and miraculous, for whom each snowflake was the only to have ever fallen – if this is true, then are we Christians not invited to that same sense of wonder?

So as we speed toward the New Year, may we cultivate Zen Mind (or, to put it differently, Christ-Child Mind): “always new, always aware, always that of a beginner,” full of wonder at every snowflake.

Amen. –Tom

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