Living the Story

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Blessed Christmas, dear Working Preacher!

By the time you read this – (I hope!) – you will have led your community in a joyous celebration of God’s decision and action to enter into our lives. Embracing the joys, the sorrows, the hopes, and the tragedies of our lives fully and completely in the person of Jesus, God draws near to us and all the world in love in the person of Emmanuel in order to bring us comfort, encouragement, and hope for both this life and the one to come.

But now we’re five days past the candlelight services of lessons and carols and it may already feel like Christmas is over. Certainly the culture has moved on. After the 26th – now as much a part of the cultural frenzy of gift buying and exchanging as the day after Thanksgiving – most of us are now looking toward New Year’s Eve, the dropping of the ball in Times Square, and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rocking Eve (still being televised with that name even though Dick Clark passed away this past year).

But here’s the thing: we can’t possibly soak in all that the Incarnation means in just one day. And so over the centuries the church appointed twelve days of Christmas in which to revel in the good news shared first with shepherds and then all the world. I know that sounds like a difficult tradition to sustain these days, but perhaps we can at least take this Sunday, the First Sunday of Christmas, to continue our celebration and contemplation of God’s act in the newborn babe of Bethlehem.

Which brings me to this morning’s gospel reading. Actually, in the context of celebrating Christmas, this reading may seem a bit odd, if not downright confusing. Jesus is no longer an infant tender and mild but a boy of twelve – my how time flies! We are no longer in Bethlehem but in Jerusalem. And Jesus’ parents are not gathered around the manger in silent adoration but are vexed, frustrated and, truth be told, probably just a little bit ticked off at having had to journey back three days to search for their missing son only to find him waxing eloquent in the Temple.

What do we do with this story, Working Preacher?

To tell you the truth, I’ve never known quite what to do with it, always dreading this passage in the lectionary for fear that I would find no clear “gospel proclamation” in it. But several weeks ago some colleagues and I engaged some “everyday Christians” – not ordained, that is – in some conversations about some of the coming passages in Luke and video-taped and edited their responses. We asked them to share their insights, their questions, their reactions – really, whatever came to mind as they read this passage together.

What I was most struck by was that rather than analyze this story, or search for a good theological interpretation, or wonder about the historicity (let alone Luke’s sources) or, in short, do any of the other things we’re trained in seminary to do, they just entered into it. They put themselves in the place of Mary and Joseph and simply lived into the story, and as they did so the good news of this passage became apparent to them. More importantly, the good news of this passage became something that spoke to their very lives and being. (I’ll put the video below. If you want to watch a larger version, or if you want to read more about what we did, you can check out a short post I wrote about it here.)

So I wonder, Working Preacher, if that’s not a strategy we could regularly adopt. Rather than analyze these passages, perhaps we can just invite our people to enter into them. Perhaps, that is, the way to extend our celebration and contemplation of the Christmas story is to make it our own, inviting our people to identify with the characters. Indeed, inviting them to see themselves as those characters and hear the words – of angels, shepherds or, in this case, the twelve year-old Jesus – themselves.

Perhaps you’ll want simply to retell this story vividly and imaginatively and have folks draw their own conclusions about how they would react. Or maybe you’ll feel moved to read the story – or maybe have other voices read it – and have folks talk about how they would feel if it had been their child missing (or, for the youth, their parents finding them in what seems the most logical place). Or maybe you’ll invite some folks ahead of time to role play the reunion between Jesus and his parents. Or maybe you’ll want to show this video and invite reactions. I don’t know. But I do know, Working Preacher, that there’s something quite powerful about not just hearing the story, but living into it. And I hope you’ll have a chance to invite your folks to do just that this Sunday and throughout the coming year.

Because, finally, I think that’s our job – to offer and tell these stories so that our people can imagine walking into them, looking around, and wondering what their lives might be like if they live them on the terms of this story of wonder and love rather than all the other cultural ones floating around. Not easy work, I know, but good work; work worth doing.

Blessed Christmas, Working Preacher. Your faithful work to help us hear, see, taste, and live this story is so very important. I always feel honored to accompany you part of the way in it. 

Yours in Christ,

PS: You can find a larger version of this video and a description of the event we held here, and an even larger version is available on Vimeo.