By Rev. Joan Kessler
Matthew 1: 18-25
I have a burning question on my heart and mind this morning…. Hands up! Who among us is feeling Christmassy in this moment? And on Zoom? Those of us who didn’t put our hands up, need only to look around the space to see who to go and visit with at coffee after the service.
“Christmassy” I discovered this week is a real word in the Meriam Webster Dictionary. It is a descriptor, an adjective. It is defined as, you guessed it, a happy feeling typical of Christmas. But what is typical of Christmas in 2022? It’s a question to ponder in these moments of quiet before we throw open our doors for our second annual Christmas Open House in a few hours’ time.
I have been reflecting with a few of you this past week about why Christmas doesn’t feel the same as it used to. As one who has reached, if not beginning to surpass, middle-age, I find myself increasingly sentimental about the Christmases of my childhood. Growing up, the majority of my family all lived in the same community so I didn’t do much different until I left home. The anticipation and excitement of presents growing under the tree, my parents busy preparing for the meals we would share with family. Christmas Eve we went to church in the late afternoon, then to my maternal grandparents for supper and a small gift opening. And some years we stayed up late and went to midnight Mass with my sister-in-law. Christmas Day we opened gifts and played with our toys; ate wife-saver brunch casserole and fruit salad and watched snippets of the Sound of Music or Wizard of Oz on TV; drank punch from the bowl and fancy glasses that only made an appearance on this holy day… and later on, our beloved cousins from the city would come and sleepover. It was the best day of the year!
Now fast forward some decades, a parent myself and a minister, I continue to build new Christmas memories. All I ever want for Christmas is for my girls to have a good celebration and happy memories to take with them into the year to come. This year will be different in that my oldest daughter will be with her boyfriend and family in Saskatchewan. So, I love the memories of the past and recognize that Christmas is changing once again.
Today’s gospel reading is for all of us who are maybe not feeling very Christmassy yet or, like me, are hanging on to Christmas sentimentality of the past. Matthew’s gospel leads us to Christmas Eve, not with Mary and her song of the Magnificat and all the joy and assurance she espouses for what God has brought her with the promise of a child, the one his people would call Messiah. No, Matthew brings us the story of the nativity from the perspective of Joseph.
Joseph was a good and decent man who worked hard and followed the rules. He was betrothed to Mary and was not one to make waves or draw attention to himself. But his world fell apart with the news of Mary’s pregnancy. He knows he is not the father and suddenly he is faced with no good options. If he exposed Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, she faced the probability of being stoned to death. If he divorced her, she faced a life of begging and prostitution to survive. On the other hand, if Joseph proceeds with the nuptials, he will have an heir that is not his biological child. Whatever Joseph decided, he would be tainted by the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy and this unfathomable claim that this child somehow born of the Spirit. The turmoil and the inner anguish of the situation hangs over this Advent time. Joseph was in a mess…one that he didn’t create. It’s hard not to feel an ache for Joseph and his situation.
But one night, in the darkness of his slumber, a dream comes so vivid that it changes Joseph’s life forever. A messenger delivers words of encouragement; that he is to not be afraid and to take Mary as his wife and raise the son she will bear together. Joseph will give the baby the name Jesus, meaning “God With Us”. Joseph awoke and did as the angel had told him. He lived into the mess and difficulty of the situation and showed up in the midst of all the complications, the suspicions, the inexplicable. His well-ordered life just received a massive shaking up.
Life is like this. The first Christmas didn’t see many feeling very happy neither. They longed for change that would free them as a people from the oppression of Roman authority and restore the rule of David, so many generations removed, yet never forgotten. Jesus entered the world in weakness and vulnerability. Mary and Joseph became like homeless refugees, wandering Bethlehem looking for a place for Mary to deliver her child. That place would be a stable and baby Jesus’ first bed was to be a cattle trough. None of this was hoped for or imagined.
In our moments of difficulty of feeling Christmassy, for the things we have undergone this past year… the changes that came to us, some of them deep griefs and losses… may we take solace in that Christmas deconstructs the Hallmark picture of this holy celebration. Our reading this morning reminds us that the first Christmas had less than perfect beginnings. But, I do believe and hold on to the hope that Christmas has the ability to reconstruct those things that are broken about our world. I read an essay from The Atlantic from a few years back that suggests if you want to get into the Christmas spirit, you simply face the darkness that is before you.
Author Tish Harrison Warren wrote that this time of year, the season of Advent brings on for us a cosmic ache: our deep wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. I love the tension of this quote. It is okay. We can admit that things are not as we wish them to be. We are challenged to make space for both grief and joy. Joseph doesn’t come off as some martyr in our reading but just an ordinary man who is trying to do the right thing. The path forward won’t be easy but we could say he will make the path by walking it.
We gather this fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Love which essentially brings together the Peace, Hope and Joy of the previous three into one. Their interconnectedness does not separate one from another. We gather Sunday by Sunday to create communal rhythms to remind us that we do not feel ho-hum alone; that we support one another all the days between now and next Christmas. Do not suffer alone in your struggles. Reach out to talk about your feelings, your disappointments, happier times – good memories that fill us and help us to spread Christmas to others. I look forward to this afternoon’s festivities, the sounds, the sights, the smells of Christmas that we will share with others not because this day is perfect but because Christmas comes to each one of us. May the love of Christmas, the courage of Joseph, find you this day and always. Amen.