|"Christmas is in the can" shared by Tonya Hansen Toutge|
My neighbor is one of the most efficient and orderly people on the planet. You could set your clock by her. On Dec. 27 I waved hello to her out the front door while she carried organizing bins from her car to her house, and I had to chuckle to myself when I pulled out of the driveway at 7 am December 28 and saw her tree all bagged up and waiting on the curb.
I imagined the inside of her house, all quiet and pristine, vacuumed and scrubbed, ornaments and decoration tucked away on a basement shelf for next year and felt just a tad bit jealous.
So, in case you hadn't realized, you can look at my neighbor's curb. Christmas is OVER, people. And with New Year’s Eve now past, we are ready to put it all behind us. I’ve had about 5 containers of assorted Christmas cookies stacked in a corner in my kitchen, cookies that we look forward to all year, and which we ate heartily and enjoyed immensely, but I am absolutely delighted to be dumping the stale leftovers in the trash this afternoon so we can get back to eating healthy again. It’s time to move on.
In our culture, Christmas is a brief, cheerful episodic event, not meant to overrun its margins. You get ready for it, you celebrate it, and you pack it away. End of story. But our Christmas story, and our Christmas season, continues.
The really dramatic, miraculous moment has passed, certainly. The angels have retreated to heaven; the shepherds have returned to their sheep. The virgin’s son has been born and she’s a regular, ordinary mom now. It would be easy to put away the story with the ornaments and stockings, but the story continues.
A couple brings their firstborn baby boy to the temple, like any good Jewish couple, like every good Jewish couple. In the hustle and bustle of the temple, the baby is brought for the ritual in the everyday event that has happened every time a firstborn male is born for centuries.
And here is the ritual: The firstborn son belongs to God, he is considered holy. It is a symbol of the deliverance of firstborn sons from the Angel of Death in Egypt when the Jews were delivered from slavery; it is a symbol that everything that comes after this one is a gift from God. And so the first fruits of labor, the first money made, the first grains and livestock are given to God, to whom they rightly belong, because God gives us all.
But the baby is brought to the temple for the custom of “redemption of the firstborn son” which was, in effect, to buy the child back from God – letting him belong to ordinary life. Rather than giving the child to be raised in the temple, or setting him aside to be a priest when he became a man, the parents would offer a sacrifice to God – would pay God – for the right to raise the child themselves, and therefore allow the child to grow up participating in ordinary activities, in secular life, rather than only holy things.
So as everyday and regular as this ritual was, take note observers, this is also the moment when the Holy One, God-incarnate, is being claimed by human beings and marked for an ordinary and common human life.
Now, there is this man in Jerusalem, Simeon, a prophet, who spends his days searching the streets, wandering and watching the ordinary world, waiting to see a sign of the salvation of Israel. He’s an unusual and holy man, respected but dismissed— after all, he’d been doing this his whole life, the same thing.
He plays his role on behalf of the people, one they are grateful for, certainly, but not something they give a second thought to. He is just Simeon, coming in and out of the temple, praying, waiting, hoping, keeping vigil.
The Advent Man.
But on this day, in the middle of the ordinary holy activity of the temple, Simeon, lingering in the temple, suddenly sees this poor, plain family approach the priest, just getting ready to carry out the ritual. He rushes past the rest of the world in its routine, and makes a beeline for the family. He reaches out to gently lift the baby from his startled mother’s arms. Holding up this unremarkable couple’s small, red-faced infant in the air, Simeon face breaks out in joy. He raises his voice above the din of the temple, and astonishing Mom & Dad and everyone else, he shouts out, “Sovereign God! As you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace! For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel!"
Then he lowers the child softly into his mother’s arms. And with tears running down his wrinkled face and into his beard, he embraces and blesses the little family. And when he has finished his blessing, he leans close to the mother; his hands grip her shoulders and he looks directly into her eyes. His voice dropping and striking a chillingly serious note that causes her to shudder, he speaks, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."
Then comes Anna, another temple regular. Once a young, sad and beautiful widow, she came to the temple sixty years earlier and stayed, devoting her whole life to fasting, praying, and serving in the temple.
The Worshiping Woman.
When the commotion begins, Anna feels a surge of awareness, a powerful déjà vu. As though in a dream, she rises from her prayers and slowly walks over, staring at the baby, now awake and starting to fuss. When she reaches the small group, she looks up and locks eyes with Simeon. In deep recognition without words, her soul fills with joy that spills from her eyes. She raises her head and begins to laugh and cry and shout thank you! to God, right then and there.
Then after placing one small leathery hand tenderly on the baby’s downy head, she whirls around and began telling people, this one walking past, that one kneeling there, her voice filled with wonder and delight, “See this child! The redemption of Israel has come!”
When Anna and Simeon’s divine interruptions calm down, and the temple resumes its rhythm, these two witnesses stand by watching as the child is redeemed, and the priest completes the ritual releasing him to an ordinary life. They watch, comprehending what nobody else sees: that in this moment God incarnate is called out of the holy to live life as a typical human child.
And then the story becomes so ordinary, so commonplace, so representative,
that the next dozen or so years of diapers and potty training,
and walking and talking
and cuts and bruises and stomach flu and temper tantrums
and birthday parties and baby sisters and new brothers
and rites of passage and making friends and being teased
and sharing toys and losing grandparents and doing chores
and learning skills and gaining independence
and laughter, anger, fear, gladness and tears – are all summarized in one verse: “...and the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”
Christmas is over, yes.
But the light has come into the world.
INTO the world – the very fabric of it. Inseparable from it. Tangled and tied and mixed up and stirred in, so that it cannot be extracted, can never be overcome. The ordinary is infused with the holy, the holy has been claimed by the ordinary; God is irreversibly here.
When the moment had passed and the people went on with their regular routines and their ordinary lives, they may never have given a second thought to the strange and beautiful scene in the temple that day. But Simeon had seen, and Anna beheld. They had glimpsed the future. The Worshiping Woman and Advent Man saw, and recognized, and knew that the world would never be the same. And so do we.
We are the Christmas Keepers.
Christmas is not an episode, a happy but empty event; it is a reorientation to the future. Christmas is the beginning of God’s joining us in this life. In every ordinary and unholy part of it.
And most often the times when our eyes see God’s salvation are not the overcoming, power and prestige moments, or the super holy and set apart moments, because that is not how God came. God came in poverty and weakness, in ordinary struggle and everyday life.
We see God’s salvation in the places of redemption amidst the pain, the moments of peace within the war, the hope that creeps in and compels us, sustains us, points us forward, the small gifts and surprise graces that permeate this ordinary, holy life.
How do we keep Christmas? Not by singing the carols and then stopping, celebrating the day and then packing it away again until next year. Because Christmas is a reorientation, not an episode. Like Anna and Simeon, we keep Christmas by cultivating awareness, by recognizing glimpses of the holy in the ordinary, and by telling the story when we see it.
It has broken in, it is at work, subtly and deeply, easy to dismiss or ignore, but impossible to quench. Unto us and for all the world, a child is born, and our eyes have seen the salvation of God.
How have your eyes seen?
And what will they see next?