FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
December 18, 2016
Babies and gifts
My nephew, Dan and his wife, Lauren, are expecting their first baby in April. This will be the first grandson for my brother and his wife, the first great-grandson for my mother. Lauren’s side of the family already has a little one. Her sister has a little girl named Grace, who is a toddler. Lauren has posted a photograph on Facebook that beautifully captures the wonder of pregnancy. Lauren is standing, smiling down at Grace, who is reaching up to place her tiny hand on Lauren’s round belly. She has been told that Lauren is expecting a baby, and soon she will have a cousin! How does Grace try to understand this? She reaches up to feel the round place where the baby will come from. She wants to feel this place to grasp the meaning of the idea that a baby is in there! A baby is coming!
Lauren and Dan are deep into the baby-naming selection process. They don’t want to know whether the baby is a boy or girl until birth, so they have compiled a short list of boys names and a short list of girls names. They talk about this one or that one. Can they go with Maggie as the name, or should it be Margaret? Oliver is a name they like, but what might that nickname be? Is Ollie a name that they like, too? They are waiting to see the new baby to bestow upon it the name that suits it best.
Personally I love this part of pregnancy! I love being the aunt who gets to propose this name or that. What is the meaning of this name? Does it carry the cherished memory of a family member or hold certain promise? Currently one of their approved names is also the name of one of my cats. I told Dan that this cat is a super sweet, mush of a cat. And Dan said, “Well, that’s gonna be our kid, obviously!” And I said, “Obviously!”
Dan and Lauren have conceived this child together, with immense love and contagious happiness. They have wanted to have a family and this is their dream come true. They are expecting a baby under the best of circumstances, glowing with love and support from their family and friends. They will wait until the baby is born to bestow upon it the name that suits him or her best, with great hope and anticipation for the future.
What must it have been like for Mary and Joseph? In today’s gospel, Matthew focuses on Joseph. What must it have been like for Joseph, to find out that Mary, his bride-to-be, was pregnant? This was not part of his plan. His bride-to-be, pregnant? A baby? Not his own? I imagine he was feeling great shame and probably anger and betrayal, too. And fear. This was not a culture kind to women who conceived out of wedlock. In fact, Mary could lawfully have been stoned to death. This was not the marriage Joseph had envisioned, certainly not the family he had hoped to have and not the best of circumstances. But God had a different plan. Joseph had decided to quietly disentangle himself from his betrothed.
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
This baby was going to come with a God-given name and a historic lineage. This baby was going to come as the fulfillment of a prophetic promise and with a divine mission. In fact, this baby would be Divine. And Joseph and Mary signed up for the job of parenting this child. I don’t know about you, but I am fairly certain that I would not be up to the challenge of mothering a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, in a culture where I might have been killed for being pregnant before my wedding took place.
In fact, I find I have a hard time just celebrating the birth of this baby, Jesus. Somehow I get so bogged down in the expectation and ritual and “doing it right” that the baby gets lost in the gift wrap. No matter how hard I try to keep the baby in mind, I get caught up in trying to make the holiday one of Norman Rockwellian perfection. This year is no exception.
Last week I invited three of my clients to a Christmas lunch at my house. I am fortunate to work for some wonderful people. I have enjoyed getting to know them and I thought it would be a really nice gift to them to prepare a meal to share and have some time enjoy each other’s company. Did I mention that the idea of being a hostess comes so much more naturally to me than the reality? That I am not the most regular housekeeper? And then there’s the whole thing about cooking, not my forte, really. Fortunately I have a neighbor whose heart is so big and generous that he can’t contain it, and he offered to do all the cooking for this lunch.
Monday morning I was up at 4 am, trying to clean my house and oh yes, paint the kitchen. My neighbor was leaving with bags of ingredients and returning with trays of cooked food, saying, “Yes, you are insane. You must not paint more than one coat. What else do you need? Coffee? Ice melt for the path to your house? Rugs for the entryway? I’ve got it covered.” Back and forth he went, bringing what I needed for my lunch as I worked furiously to pull it all together. When my guests arrived, the fire was going in the woodstove, the kitchen had one coat of lovely new yellow paint and miraculously, delicious food was warming in the oven. I was so nervous and exhausted that I could barely process what was going on. I found it a challenge just to serve the food he had prepared. But my guests, who were all friends, seemed to be enjoying themselves. I thought things were going okay. Until I remembered the dog. Where was my dog? My troublesome not-quite-two-year-old pupteen? He was awfully quiet and come to think of it, I hadn’t seen him in some time. I found him on the bed, enjoying this party immensely and happily chewing a nice big hole in my client’s leather boot. [sigh] My client, after her initial shock wore off, told me not to worry about it. Yeah, so it’s pretty clear that I could not handle the task that was set before Mary. But let me share a quote for you by Nadia Bolz-Weber from her book Accidental Saints, Finding God in All the Wrong People:
“Let me tell you about this God. I told them that this was a God who always used imperfect people. That this was a God who walked among us and who ate with all the wrong people and kissed lepers. I told them that this was a God who rose from the dead and grilled fish on the beach with his friends and then ascended to heaven and is especially present to us in the most ordinary things: wheat, wine, water, words. I told them that this God has never made sense. And you don’t need to either, because this God will use you, this God will use all of you, and not just your strengths but your failures and your failings. Your weakness is fertile ground for a forgiving God to make something new and to make something beautiful, so don’t ever think that all you have to offer are your gifts.
We celebrate the birth of this baby, Jesus, more than 2000 years after his birth. We do our best to relive the excitement and hope of his birth by sharing gifts. We celebrate the coming of this baby, “God is with us,” by doing our best to practice what he taught us – to love. And we may find, like I did, that sometimes when we are busy trying to give love perfectly, we find that we are receiving love, unexpectedly, generously, wonderfully.