This is the reflection I shared in church yesterday. Each year on the Sunday after Christmas 3 carols are sung with a reflection shared before each carol. My carol was “What Child Is This?” It seemed to resonate with some folks in the congregation so I thought I would share it here as well.
preached by Anarchist Reverend
December 26, 2010
Plymouth Congregational Church
When I was in college my mother became a foster parent. Through this experience our family has expanded to include many children over the years; including a couple that we have adopted. My little sister, Safi, was born premature. She weighed only 2 ½ pounds at birth. The first time I met her was when I traveled home for a friend’s wedding.
She was so tiny and dressed in this frilly dress; more ruffles then baby. And I held her in my arms, almost afraid that she would break. And I was instantly in love. I understood that wonder with which this carol starts, “What child is this?” It’s a sense of awe, a sense of great possibility. This child could grow up to be anything or anyone; they could cure a disease, be a great musician, be a person of caring and compassion.
We can imagine Mary holding her son for the first time; the wonder at this little being before her. We can imagine the dreams she was holding for her son. It’s easy to get caught up in this blissful moment; the mother and child. Choirs of angels singing. Peaceful and serene.
This moment is also a moment of danger as we place all of these hopes and dreams upon our children.
The Gospels tell us that Mary and Jesus had a complicated relationship. At one point Mary and her other children show up to talk to Jesus. There was such a crowd gathered around the place where he was that they couldn’t get inside. Jesus was becoming popular; well-known. Maybe they had a hint that what he was preaching was going to get him into trouble. They wanted him to stop, to play it safe. Jesus refused to talk to them saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” I wonder if, in that moment, Mary thought, “What child is this?” This is not the son I raised.
I think of all of the ways in which children complicate the dreams of their parents. The conservative mother who’s son tells her that he’s gay; The pacifist father who’s daughter joins the Army. The child who refuses to go into the family business, or the one that studies music instead of science. The wonder of the moment of blissful babies sleeping gets lost in the growing up and growing apart.
This time of the year can be really tough for a lot of people. People who are alienated from their families of origin. Many of my queer friends don’t see anything good about this holiday. Some of them have no family to go home to; others have families that won’t respect their new names or pronouns.
How do we deal with the loss that occurs when our children don’t grow up to be who we expect them to be? How do we as children deal with the disappointment of our parents? Is there any way to recapture the wonder?
Mary didn’t want a son who was a radical and yet that’s exactly what she got. She got a son who preached peace but also the overturning of the structures of the day. He preached good news to the poor, a radical ethic of nonviolence, and a message that was dangerous to the Roman empire. It was a message that got him into trouble and eventually got him killed. We can imagine that Mary tried to talk him out of it. She probably cautioned him, asking him to play it safe, to tone down his message. And yet… she was at the foot of the cross. She was a witness to watching her son die. Imagine the strength it must have taken
her to show up; to be present for Jesus in this moment when he needed it most. In this moment we capture again the wonder. “What child is this?” This is my child.
Jesus knew who he was called to be. He knew the message he had to preach, even if it meant disappointing his mother. Sometimes we have to stand up for ourselves. It might mean correcting a parent when they use the wrong pronoun, or refusing to come to dinner until your partner is welcome as well. It might mean choosing a career path that is meaningful to you even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else. In some ways it’s shaking off the expectations placed upon us in order to be our whole, authentic selves.
And sometimes there is movement. We see it in the mother who invites her son’s boyfriend to Christmas dinner, setting a place for him at the table. We see it in the father who sends his daughter letters every day while she is deployed. These are moments of wonder that come through patience and remaining in relationship with one another even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
I would feel remiss if I didn’t offer a caveat here: Sometimes in order to be our whole and healthy selves we must walk away from families that cause us harm. We must cut ties with people who refuse to move and instead damage us. That reality gets glossed over in this season of togetherness. There are situations in which no movement is possible and it’s important to recognize and give voice to that. In those situations we create families of love instead of origin. And we help one another to heal.
This is the struggle of being in a family. This struggle is one of the things that gets lost when we only focus on the joy of the baby at Christmas. We get so caught up in the manger scene that we forget about what comes next; the terrible twos, adolescence, and adulthood. And death. Jesus’ brutal murder by the state for preaching peace and justice. And even with the strife that Jesus’ life caused his family, he had no choice but to be who he was called to be. To stand up to oppression, even when that oppression came from within his own family.
The Christmas story isn’t just about a cute baby born in a manger, but about the birth of a radical. We only celebrate
Christmas knowing the outcome; that this cute little baby grows up to be a preacher who gets murdered by the state. And in his murder we get left with a message of wholeness; of understanding that none of us are free until all of us are free. This message isn’t just about spiritual freedom but about freedom from oppression of all kinds; whether it be political, economic, or familial.
And change, it seems, always comes about through struggling together. From one person touching and influencing another. When Jesus refused to come outside to talk to his mother she could have written him off, cut ties with him and walked away. But she didn’t. Instead she showed up to be with her son when he needed her. It may seem strange to be mixing the personal story of Jesus and Mary with the political story of his public life and death, but the reality is that the two are always mixed. We carry our families with us for good and ill as we make our way through the world. And sometimes the most politically powerful thing you can do is to be who you are with your family.
Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to stay with the
picture of the mother and child. It would be easier for our children to remain babies, it would be easier for us to have not formed our own opinions that differ from the ones our parents hold. But if we stay with only the wonder of birth, we miss out on the wonder of growing and struggling together. We miss the power of movement.
I have no idea who my sister will grow up to be. My only hope is that I can get out of the way enough to allow her to become whoever she is meant to be. And in doing that I hope that she will challenge me to be who I am meant to be. That by being in relationship we challenge each other to open up and be our best selves. That even in struggle we allow the light to break through and the wonder that is love to hold us together.