The Mess


Own work

[W]ho, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8, NRSV)

During this Advent season, I’ve thought a good deal about the central wonder of Christmas, that the one Christians believe to be “very God” was “born in human likeness”, which is really to say, he was born as fully human as you and me.

I wonder if we have ever thought about how messy this all was. To begin with, we have a baby developing over nine months in a bath of amniotic fluid in Mary’s womb. Then there is water breaking, and the passage of the baby and the placenta through the birth canal. Amazing, yes, but messy. And then there is infancy — nursing and changing — yes, Jesus didn’t come toilet-trained.

It is amazing to me that the son of God would so thoroughly participate in our mess. We are messy people, and not just in our infancy. We are physically messy and smelly and bathing only temporarily covers that. And it could be argued that we are pretty good at making a mess of the world around us. And we do this all the way until we make our exit from this world, often a messy affair as well.

I’m staggered that God would indeed get intimately mixed up in all the mess of human bodily existence. He didn’t stay aloof in some ethereal, spiritual realm, far removed from our mess. He got right into it, even to the point of death by one of the cruelest means humans have devised, the cross.

The real question Christmas poses is “why?” Why does God the son let go of all the prerogatives of deity to wade into our mess? What is this (messy) baby in the manger really all about?

The only thing that really makes sense to me is the conclusion one of the early fathers of the church, Athanasius, wrote in On the Incarnation:

He became what we are that he might make us what he is.

More prosaically, you might say, he entered our mess to clean us up and make us like him. And why would he do that? To become what he is, at least in character, though not in essence, is not just about reclaiming what was lost but about restoring us to relationship. Jesus became a child in a human family so that we could be children of God, part of a heavenly family.

The real gifts of Christmas are not those brought by the Magi nor found under the tree, but rather the child in manger. And the questions this day poses to us are, will we believe he is indeed gift for us and receive the gift that is him? Will we let him into our mess? Will we not simply welcome him into our family but accept his welcome into his?

This is Christmas.

The Unsung Hero of Christmas

Joseph often strikes me as the unsung hero of the Christmas story. Of course the greatest hero is the Christ child, the Incarnate One who enters our world as a helpless babe for our salvation. And there is Mary, who receives Gabriel’s message with the words, “I am the servant of the Lord” even though the thing asked of her meant the possibility of being seen as an unwed mother and of having been unfaithful to Joseph, her betrothed. It is she who carries this child, who births him in difficult circumstances, and whose own heart will also be pierced as she one day beholds her crucified son. In most of our Christmas carols, however, Joseph gets less “air time” than the angels, the wise men, the shepherds or even the mythical drummer boy!


Joseph is known for what he did not do. He did not denounce Mary or even put her away quietly. He took her as wife and, to leave the matter beyond question, did not have relations with her (a model of the possibility of restraint in our sexualized culture!).

What he did do is obey the angelic command and believe the declaration that this child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that he would save his people from sin. His belief and obedience carried them to Bethlehem, to Egypt, by roundabout ways to Nazareth. He raised the young boy, likely teaching him carpentry because Jesus is referred to both as the carpenter’s son and the carpenter whose father was Joseph. He and Mary anxiously searched for him after their visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 and Jesus stayed behind to converse with the religious teachers. This is the last we hear of Joseph alive.

Joseph, to me, represents everyday faithfulness, the behind the scenes kind of faithfulness that is usually only noticed by its absence. He does what needs to be done, whether finding an alternative to guest rooms, getting the family out of danger, and supporting a family and mentoring a son in a physically exacting and demanding trade. Carpentry likely included construction work as well as craftsmanship. And one also wonders if he had a role in teaching his son the scriptures, perhaps in conjunction with synagogue life.

It strikes me that Joseph might be the kind of hero we need to pay more attention to in our celebrity-driven culture, both outside and inside the church. We often seem to want to spend more time giving adulation to these celebrities, or if we are particularly ambitious, trying to become one of them. Joseph’s life calls us to a different path, the path of resolute but quiet belief worked out in love for those around us, obedience to God’s commands even when these don’t make sense (something that happens sooner or later for anyone who follows Christ), and the diligent stewardship of what is entrusted to us.

Joseph often seems a “bit player” in the Christmas story. Yet without him, there would be no story. And isn’t that the way it is for most of us? Isn’t it the case that the people who have had the greatest impact in our lives are usually not celebrities but likely those whose names will never appear in history books? Who has been a Joseph to you? And for whom can you be a Joseph?

Merry Christmas!


A Few of My Favorite (Christmas) Things

With just a few days before Christmas and inspired by the recent TV version of Sound of Music I thought I’d share a few of my favorite things about Christmas.

Christmas tree

1. Christmas trees.  As I kid I would spend hours following the strings of lights and garland around the tree and stare at the artistry of the ornaments. Still do sometimes.

2. Christmas music. In fact one of the most delightful discoveries a few years ago was learning that the 12 Days of Christmas begin on Christmas Days and continue until January 6 and Christmas carols are appropriate all through this time, even if most of the radio stations stop on Christmas day.

3. Christmas eve services at our church, singing “Silent Night” as we light candles and turn out the lights.  Not just a sentimental moment but the joy of looking on the faces of friends with whom I’ve spent the last 23 years of my life.

4. Gathering with Ben, Hannah, and Marilyn to bake pizzelles several weeks before Christmas and the smell of anise that lingers in the house for weeks.

Nativity in sun

5. The way the late afternoon sun shines on our nativity scene at this time of year.

6. Singing great Christmas music with Capriccio Columbus. This year we are performing a wonderful Magnificat and other pieces.

7. Remembering how our son would be up at 3 am in the morning pacing down the hall from his room to our living room to see if Santa had come.

8. Rolling over in bed, realizing we don’t have to get up early Christmas morning any more!

9. Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas and listening to the exquisite music of Vince Guaraldi, and wishing he had lived longer to create more of this.

10. Listening to the gospel stories of the birth of Christ and wondering at amazement that God would come into our world not as a conquering hero but a helpless baby to so identify with our life and condition.

Thanks to all of you who have followed the blog during these first months of figuring out how to do all this. I wish you all great joy this holiday!