Readings: Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21
Being in a country parish like this one reminds me of an old joke about a church that was having trouble with mice. They’d tried repellents, they’d tried poisons, they’d hired pest control companies, all to no avail. A deacon finally suggests baptizing them. “That way,” he says, “they’ll only show up on Christmas and Easter.”
I for one, enjoy the Christmas and Easter crowds, for they present us opportunity to present the gospel to people who may not regularly hear it. I do hope everyone here had a good Christmas, a Happy New Year, and that you enjoyed all the customs and traditions that go with the holidays.
Gift-giving has always been a big part of my family’s Christmases – we still insist on each person opening one gift at a time so we can anticipate the reaction of the givee. It’s a wonderful time really, not only for those opening gifts, but for those giving them. The time goes quickly and before you know it, we’re left amid piles of opened presents, discarded wrapping paper, ribbons, and little Rocky sniffing wildly while tearing into the wrapping paper.
By end of the day, after the presents, and after stuffing ourselves with turkey and all the trimmings, we sit back and enjoy the quiet. As I child I didn’t really like what happened next. I’d spent weeks working myself up with excitement, barely being able to wait for the big day, and then when it was over, post-Christmas malaise set in. I’d have to find new homes for my new acquisitions, but before long we’d be back into our regular routines.
Living for the Highlights
As a child I lived for the big events: Christmases and birthdays, first and last days of school, holidays, opening day of the baseball season. The ‘in-between’ days were unremarkable, and therefore simply needed to be endured to get to the ‘good stuff’.
I think many of us approach life like that. We enjoy the highlights, the significant occasions, and the in-between times simply must be tolerated. In church land this can be seen in the presence of the ‘CEO’s of the Church world (Christmas and Easter Only crowd), or when the families of the baptized, or the newly confirmed arrive at our door. We set these occasions above others; they are, after all, crucial moments in the Christian’s life.
In our liturgical calendar we even set apart ‘high feast’ days like Christmas and Easter that include special prayers and songs to help us gain a sense of the uniqueness of these occasions. And once we move through these times, we find ourselves in what is properly called ‘Ordinary Time’. In the church calendar ‘Ordinary Time’ follows Epiphany on January 6th, and Pentecost Sunday. It makes up much of our church season – and thus parallels our lives that are made up of high points to be reflected upon and cherished but consist mostly of ordinary day-to-day routines.
Jesus’ Early Life
We don’t know a lot about Jesus’ life before his ministry began. And that’s kind of remarkable. It’s true that legends in the ‘gnostic gospels’ contain rather bizarre stories of a young Messiah able to speak from infancy, who gave life to animal sculptures, and when confronted, could even kill people with a word. I don’t think it surprising that these texts did not make it into our canon of Scripture, but that’s a discussion for another day. If anything, I think the absence of stories of Jesus’ earlier life tells us something: that it is in the ‘ordinary’ that we live, and our approach to the ordinary is what forms us and equips us to meet the extraordinary.
In the gospel today we hear about a Jewish family doing what a good Jewish family does: after the required eight days had passed, the infant Jesus is circumcised and officially named, Jesus. We don’t learn too much else about Jesus’ young life until we get to the story of the time his family travelled to Jerusalem when he was twelve. If you recall, young Jesus disappeared from his family group so that he could be in the Temple. Naturally, his parents were very upset. The story ends with the line, “Then he went down to Nazareth with them, and was obedient to them.” He had been chastised for causing his parents to worry, and even though he felt a strong connection to his ‘Father’s house’ (the Temple), he went along with his parents’ wishes.
Jesus’ Quiet Life
It appears that in this story Jesus is already aware of his special calling, and perhaps he had an awareness of what was to come for him, but he still had close to twenty years to go before beginning his ministry. What would he do in the meantime?
To be sure we don’t know exactly what his days looked like, but implicit in this story is that Jesus lived a quiet but admirable life, ‘growing in wisdom and favour with God and man.’ As a firstborn son he would’ve worked with his father as a mason – the hard, physical labour of the working class. He would be trained to succeed his father to carry on the family business when Joseph was no longer able to work. He would’ve had to care for his young siblings, assisting his mother with household chores. As a Jew he would’ve gone to synagogue, studied the scriptures, attended church school, and journeyed to Jerusalem for occasions like the Passover.
His life would’ve been relatively ordinary: Washing dishes, cleaning his room, going to bed before curfew, waking up early to get in as much work as possible before it got too hot. In this ordinary time the Messiah is spiritually formed, matured. As he handles his family and work responsibilities, in his dealings with relationships, Jesus grows in ‘favour with God and man.’ He is of a heavenly kingdom yet doesn’t neglect his fellow human beings. And maybe, just maybe, it was during this ordinary time that Jesus learns to, as the Jesuits say, ‘find God in all things.’
How do we live in the ‘in-between’ times?
It’s easy to get excited about our faith at Christmas and Easter, or when we go to a spiritual retreat or attend a Christian concert. But what about the in-between times? What about ‘ordinary time’? Brother Lawrence was a 17th century solider-turned-monk that joined the Carmelite order in Paris in 1666. Like many joining religious orders, he expected to be engaged in noble work at the monastery and to be lifted into ecstatic prayer experiences. Instead, he found himself spending most of his time washing pots in the kitchen. Day after day, hour after hour, he scrubbed and scraped pots and pans. At first, he was discouraged and didn’t think he’d be able to keep it up – it was his most hated chore and here he found himself being forced to do it over and over again.
But then something happened. He stopped seeing his dish washing as an obstacle to his prayer life; rather, it was an opportunity to experience God in the ordinary. Here’s what he says in his work, “The Practice of the Presence of God”:
“The time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were on my knees…
I drove away from my mind everything capable of spoiling the sense of the presence of God…I just make it my business to persevere in His holy presence…My soul has had an habitual, silent, secret conversation with God.”
Practice finding the Presence of God in the Mundane
Perhaps we can be inspired by the example of Brother Lawrence today: Practice the presence of God. Find sanctuary in the sanctity of the mundane. The path to the extraordinary goes through the ordinary. For in this season especially recall that we worship a God who manifests God’s self in the ‘ordinary’ human form of a child – and may God’s holy presence persist in the highs, lows, and in-betweens of our lives.