Joseph and the Angel

A Very Messy Christmas

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

-Leonard Cohen

Judah is threatened, but King Ahaz, not otherwise known for piety, refuses to test God in his moment of need. God nevertheless renders a sign: Isaiah, who thinks he knows what information a calculating ruler wants to hear, announces that a girl with soon give birth.

Paul writes as a self-described slave to Christians in the imperial capital where he will eventually be executed. Yet, compelled by Christ, he greets his readers with words of grace and peace.

Joseph learns that his fiancée is pregnant with someone else’s child, and looks for a way out. Yet God speaks to him through an angel in a dream and – get this! – Joseph is persuaded to stay.

December is crammed with orgies of getting and spending, bacchanals of forced jollity, and fits of consumption we anesthetize with the drone of Muzak carols. Though we lack the wisdom and resolve of our ancestors, God still beckons us through practices of silence, watchful waiting, repentance, and prayer.

Christmas is not now – nor has it ever been – perfect, despite our meticulous plans, our feverish preparation. But when did God ever approach the fully prepared, the truly deserving, those whose lives were in perfect order? God visits Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Peter, and Paul. Matthew’s genealogy includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. It’s a comfort to know scripture’s great figures were misfits, their lives as messy and flawed as mine.

And what is this Incarnation we claim to await in Advent, but God’s entry into the glorious mess of human embodiment? That the Creator enters creation as a human child is, for most of us, no longer an occasion of cognitive dissonance. Even death on a cross has, through countless artistic depictions, lost its power to truly shock. But incarnation in first century Palestine came with much that our images of Jesus don’t include: diarrhea, intestinal parasites, rotting teeth, countless infections, lives that were – for the mass of men and women – poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But, in my twenty-first century material comfort, do I really desire God Incarnate? I’ve met very few Christians who both understand and intend the words “thy kingdom come,” which would require surrendering one’s own, largely imagined, petty monarchies. When, on occasion, my heart engages that enormity, I cower in fear and trembling, knowing far too late that I deserve nothing but condemnation for my many failures, while God steals from behind singing of mercy and mercy and yet more mercy.

In God’s good time, those more attentive than I recognize that the avenues of our salvation are precisely the faults, blemishes, and fissures we struggle to hide. In God’s good time, the busyness of what passes for “the Holidays” strikes those wiser than I as a sad waste God nonetheless puts to healing use. In God’s good time, all things broken, cracked, messy, and trampled work together for good.

In God’s good time.

Not ours.

May your Christmas be messy, broken, soiled. How else will you be ready for the Messiah’s coming? How else will the light get in?

2 Responses to “A Very Messy Christmas”

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  1. Nancy says:

    Late in life, my objection to organized religion was the way it appeared to come between us and our awareness of the goodness of God. Do I need to cite instances?
    The same goes for doctrinal accretions like Virgin Birth. If Jesus could be God and still have 46 chromosomes from a human mother, couldn’t he have 23 from her and 23 from a human father, and still be God? The ancients (“that which is in her is by the Holy Spirit”) did not know the role of woman in conception. Well, but God did.
    Looking at the history of religions, paganism was elitist. If you were descended from a god, you were one too. If you were a slave in life, same after death. The revolution brought about by Christianity lay in the egalitarian message that salvation is attainable to ALL. Then Roman Christianity became anything but egalitarian.
    How about just “The Message of Jesus: that we are ALL children of God”?
    Both timely and reconciliatory.

  2. Carlos says:

    I came across this post from a post in the On Being blog. I was in church this past Sunday and heard these readings. They reminded me to recognize that it’s in the mess where we find grace. I came home and posted the following:

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