After Christmas

We did it! We did Christmas. For better or for worse, it’s done, and now we can move on. Are you ready?

Just now, I’m giving myself permission to think about the new year. Not The New Year. Just the new year. I have some fun things for you. My completed book list from 2015. This last six months of reading was pretty blah, but I think I may have found THE book of the year just yesterday. I’ll let you know. I found the best storytelling game for kids. And I have a weird host of weird ideas for new stories and poems. We’re going to make January silly and fun, no matter how gross it is outside.

In the meantime, I’ll share with you what I was working on last week (besides last-minute shopping and wrapping and cookie consuming).  

Nate was asked to speak at our church on Sunday, and since we like nothing better than a chance to work together, he asked me to do some storytelling as a part of his message. It was so much fun. I think sometimes we forget that the stories in the Bible are stories. But when we remember, they are even more powerful. These particular stories are all about what happened AFTER Christmas. First, what I wrote when I was figuring the stories out, then the podcast of the actual storytelling, which wasn’t a reading, so it takes its own course. 

—————

She had the baby.

From the moment the angel came to see her, she had thought of nothing but that day. The Birth. And now it had happened.

It was a wild night. Breathing through contractions in the barn. Trying to focus on the smell of the animals, on the feel of Joseph’s hand, on the sounds of a city packed full of people. Trying to focus on anything but the pain.

And then the baby came. Her son. Her little boy.

 And he was perfect. And she was filled with joy as she wrapped him tightly and laid him in the only available bassinet, the animals’ feeding trough.

She watched him lying there asleep, and that’s when it hit her. This was only the beginning. This day she had planned for and prepared for and wished for and feared. This was only the first day. Now she had to raise a son. THE son.

How on earth…?

There was barely time to feel overwhelmed before the shepherds showed up with their story of angels and bright lights and words of hope. They were so excited. Their excitement was contagious, and her fears receded as she listened to them talk and watched the awe on their faces as they looked down at her child. How could her heart be heavy when God had sent hosts of angels to greet their son? When he wanted the whole world to know that this night was good news of great joy for all people?

So she tried to hold on to that moment. To tuck it away in her heart and remember exactly how their faces shone, exactly how Joseph smiled, exactly how certain and secure she felt.

Because after a while they left, went out into the city to tell everyone what had happened, and then Mary and Joseph were just two people in a barn with a baby, trying to catch a few precious hours of sleep in between feedings. And in the quiet darkness of a 3 am feeding, the fears crept back in. The feeling of inadequacy. And a vague dread she couldn’t even put a name to.

The days and weeks passed. She got used to the uneven rhythm of feeding a baby and changing him and cuddling him to sleep. Joseph finally found them a house to stay in, and they moved out of the barn. He picked up odd jobs and they made ends meet.

 The shepherds came back to visit from time to time. She was always glad to see them. They reminded her of her happiest moment, her most peaceful time. The heaviness in her heart didn’t go away, though. It was always with her, and sometimes the shepherds and their blissful excitement grated on her nerves a little. They seemed to think that now that the Messiah was here everything was going to be miraculously transformed.

But Mary had to change the baby’s diapers, and every time she did, she couldn’t help thinking that it was a long way from here to a new world of freedom for her people.

Finally the time came when the law said they needed to go to the temple to present their first born son to God, a reminder that all firstborns were his. They would do the offering for her purification, too. She was finally healed up, on her feet, and back to normal, or at least as close to it as she would ever be. So they went.

 Jesus was nearly six weeks old.

Traveling with a baby wasn’t easy, but the journey felt significant, and after so many days of endless repetitive tasks, it was good to feel that they were doing something important.

Walking into the temple of God with the Son of God in her arms made Mary tremble all over. Joseph was a steady presence by her side, but she could sense his emotion as well.

No one else seemed to notice anything, though. They were just one more young couple with a new baby to be processed. Another task in a busy day for the priests and temple workers.

Then, as they crossed the temple courts, an old man came over to them. He wasn’t wearing the robes of a priest, but he had wisdom and righteousness written all over his face. The moment he looked into Mary’s eyes, she knew that he knew.

His face was full of joy.

With trembling hands, he reached out for her baby, and even though it made her a little nervous, she handed the boy over. The old man cradled Jesus in his arms and began to praise God.

She would never forget his words:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all the nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

Mary felt a thrill of wonder pass through her. It was another perfect moment, a beautiful confirmation that all the Angel had said was true. Her little Jesus really was the Messiah, the Son of God, and God was going to work everything out.

Once again, she tried to tuck this moment into her heart, remembering how quickly her peace had faded after the shepherds left.

And then the old man met her eyes over the head of her baby, cradled in his arms. He held his look steady, and his face was full of compassion as he said, “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.”

Mary felt as if the piercing had already begun. The vague dread that had hung over her since this started crystallized into a horrible understanding.

Her son was born to set her people free. Which meant that for every person who loved him, someone else would hate him. And those would be the people in power.

Her baby was six weeks old, and already she knew she would have to face the worst thing any mother could face. She was going to have to watch her son suffer.

* * * * *

Anna had been a widow for so long, she could barely remember any other life.  

She knew she had been a child once, simple and carefree. She knew she had been a young wife, full of hope. But both of those seemed like other people, perhaps people she had heard about in a story.

The hope had been cut short. Her husband had died after only a few years of marriage, and she had been left with no one.

The obvious thing to do would have been to get married again. To have kids. To lead a normal life as a normal part of the community, but that never happened.

Instead she went often to the temple, to worship and to pray. To talk to the people who came through its courts.

At first many times a week. Then every day. Then she would stay all day.

The woman who had no family, no true home of her own, took the people of God as her family, made the temple of God her home.

And the years went by. And she lived and lived and lived. Days and weeks and months of being all alone, and yet never alone, becoming less and less like other women her age.

Eighty-four years later, she was one of a kind, and she never left the temple at all. She just stayed there, day and night, worshipping, fasting, praying, listening to God.

And she had started to hear him pretty clearly by now.

Everyone knew she was a prophet. That she could see clearly how the commands and promises of God applied to right now. People listened to her, and by now even came to her to ask her about their lives.

These people that had become her family now looked to her to fulfill an important role. She was no one’s mother but everyone’s grandmother, old and wise and full of God’s words.

The day the baby Messiah came into the temple, held in his mother’s arms, was the absolute crowning moment of her long, strange, wonderful life.

Her dear friend Simeon, who knew he would live to see the Messiah born, was the first to spot the little family. When he held that baby in his arms and gave him his blessing, Anna’s eyes filled with tears. She knew how much this moment meant to him. So many times they had talked about the hope that was coming. She knew the joy he felt, and the freedom. Now he was free to go, to stop waiting endlessly and go to his peaceful rest. Anna was eighty-four years old. She felt in every one of her bones how much he longed for that, and she thought her heart would burst with happiness for her friend.

And then she looked around at the temple full of people. Those who worked there. Those who had just come for the day, to fulfill the law, to worship their God.

Her family.

And now the hope of her family had come. The one who would give her loved ones freedom. The one who would save her people.

She gave thanks to God with all her heart.

And then she couldn’t help herself. She went up to everyone who was there and told them the good news. They had all come to this place for the same reason. They were looking for redemption.

She just had to tell them that their redemption was here. Today. With them. In this same place.

She just had to tell them that their family was now complete.

* * * * *  

For all his fears and for all of the craziness of those early years, raising Jesus had turned out to be way easier than Joseph had expected.

I mean, the beginning had definitely been rough.

The baby phase. The crying. The sleeplessness. They had experienced the startling visit of the three kings, and then had fled in fear to Egypt while hearing of massacres back home. They had lived as foreigners there, trying their best to navigate a strange country.

But in time, they had heard the news that they were safe. They had gone home, not just to their temporary home in Bethlehem, but all the way home to Nazareth. They had built a house, settled down, had other children.

For several years now, life had been almost…normal.

And all this time Jesus grew. He was healthy and strong. He was obedient to his parents and kind to his younger brothers. He was a good boy.

And so smart. The things he said! Joseph never had more interesting conversations with anyone than he did with his son.

Everyone in town spoke well of the boy. It was hard to criticize a child who was so good to everyone.

They had always told him who he really was. He seemed to accept it as a matter of course, but he never tried to act like a king. He never demanded things of his mother. He never disrespected his father. He never looked down on his brothers.

It seemed like those rough early days were behind them.

Joseph could tell when he looked in Mary’s eyes that she never stopped worrying. His fears never completely went away either. But they did rest.

The more he knew his adopted son, the more years that passed with the boy behaving just as he should, the more Joseph relaxed. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as daunting as he had thought.

He worked hard to train the boy right. They read the law. They followed the law. Every year they went to Jerusalem for the Passover.

The year the boy was twelve, they traveled to Jerusalem just like they always had. It was a good time, just like it always was. Many of their relatives and other people from their town were with them. It was a joyful group.

At the end of their time there, they all traveled home together, talking over everything they had seen and done in the city. Joseph didn’t see Jesus walking near him, but that wasn’t unusual. He was probably with his cousins or his friends from the village. He was well-liked among the other boys.

It wasn’t until they camped that night that Mary came to him with a worried look on her face. She couldn’t find Jesus anywhere. Joseph tried to calm her down. He went with her to ask the others where Jesus had gone.

But no one had seen him. No one had walked with him. Their blank faces told the truth pretty clearly.

The boy had been left behind in Jerusalem.

Mary came unglued a little, not that Joseph could blame her. The boy was strong and smart, but Jerusalem was a big city, full of strangers, and he was only twelve.

This kid was their most important responsibility. How had they just lost him?

Mary insisted that they head back right away, no resting. They needed to get back to the city even if it meant traveling all night.

Joseph agreed, though he planned to talk her into a few hours of sleep later. She couldn’t go forever without rest.

They left the other children with their relatives.

The traveled as long as they could, slept a little, and then walked on until they arrived back in the city.

The first place they looked was the lodging where they had stayed. No one had seen Jesus since the group left.

Then they visited every place they had been that week.

Then they visited every person they knew in the city.

No one had seen him.

He was nowhere.

Three days of searching. Two nights of unsuccessfully trying to rest. Still, they hadn’t found him.

By now, Mary was a complete wreck. Exhausted. Terrified. Full of shame at her failure as a mother.

Nothing he said helped at all.

There was nothing to do but keep looking.

That third day they went to the temple. Maybe Jesus had gone there. If not, at least they could take a few minutes to pray that he was safe.

When they walked into the temple courts, they saw him immediately. Not dirty and disheveled and hungry as they had feared to find him. Just sitting calmly, obviously well-fed and safe, talking seriously with the teachers of the law who were gathered there.

Joseph could see the looks of amazement on the faces of everyone who was listening to the boy. He knew what they were feeling. He had felt that sense of wonder when he had discussed the law with Jesus. As they approached someone asked a question, and Jesus’s answer was astonishing.

Mary didn’t seem to see any of this. The second she saw her son, she choked back a sob and stumbled toward him.

He didn’t notice her until she broke through the circle of men and threw herself on him.

“How could you do this to us!? Why have you treated us this way? We’ve been searching for you!”

Jesus looked surprised. He didn’t apologize. He didn’t look ashamed. He did hug his mother, but the tone of his voice when he answered her was almost reprimanding.

“Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”

Just as if everything was perfectly clear to him, and he couldn’t see why it wasn’t clear to them, too.

But it wasn’t clear. In Joseph’s mind a good son stayed with his parents. If he had to go somewhere, he thoughtfully told his mother where he was going. He didn’t put her through the anguish that Mary had suffered these days.

In that moment all Joseph’s dreams that this would be easier than expected disappeared.

The boy was good. He was respectful and obedient. But he had his own agenda.

Maybe his parents could count on his kindness, but they couldn’t count on him to be predictable. They could teach and train him, but they couldn’t control him.

They went home that night, and Jesus went with them. He was obedient as always. But there was no taking back those three days.

There was no forgetting what they all knew so clearly now.

He was their son, but he had another Father, too. And like his true Father, his ways were not their ways.

He was beyond them.

———

You can listen to the podcast here.

Hope you get to soak up a bit more holiday cheer this week before heading back into normal on Monday. We’re going to see Star Wars for the fourth time tonight (come on, you’re not surprised) and then partying it up on Thursday with a bunch of friends (and by partying, I probably mean playing a board game until the ball drops and then clinking glasses and going to bed). 

I’ll meet you here with the book list later this week!

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