Milk Carton Jesus
Homily delivered Second Sunday of Christmas (ABC) 3rd January 2021
10:00am Live Streamed Sung Eucharist Parish Church of Trinity Ashland, Oregon
God, give us hearts to feel and love; take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
Today’s gospel is a story of terror for any parent—losing your child with little hope of finding him again. Had it occurred in a later age, we would find Mary and Joseph publishing pictures of the 12-year old Jesus on milk cartons, or sending out an “Amber alert.” They discover to their horror that their son has disappeared. They return to Jerusalem and search for days only to find Jesus in one of the Temple Courts taking an impromptu course in religious law. The Blessed Virgin greets him pointedly: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been looking for you for three days.” He answers with a “well, duh!” kind of response known all too well by parents of adolescents worldwide: “Why did you look all over town for me? Surely you must have known, Mother, that I would be in my Father’s House.” His barbed use of the word “Father” to mean God here corrects his mother’s loose use of it to refer to her husband Joseph. Mary, like many parents, doesn’t appreciate her teen-ager’s humor. Rather, she takes it in with puzzlement. The story concludes with the family’s return home and, “He was obedient to them.”
The story presents the glories and the incongruities of the incarnation, the taking on of human flesh by God in Jesus. God in human form speaks, but as a twelve-year-old boy talking back—talking truth to be sure, but still talking back—to his distraught mother. It sums up the incarnation’s scope: in the words of the Book of Hebrews, Christ shared all our limitations and trials, but without sin. The incarnation marks a radical continuity between our human lives and God’s, and that implies sacredness in all it means to be human, including adolescence. We often miss the point, wrongly thinking that somehow God came among us without truly being one of us. This “God incognito” paid for our sins and somehow made it possible for us to be more like God, and less like human beings. That is a total warping of the meaning of the incarnation. God became truly human in all ways (except in resisting God), and that means it’s O.K. to be fully human. In fact, it means God calls us to be fully human, and to do that he calls us to follow his example when he was among us, and not resist God so much. It is only thus that we can find our true and full humanity.
Popular Christian legends from the early years of the faith reflect some of the confusion that prevailed about the incarnation—many of the infancy Gospels rejected by the Church Councils for inclusion in the New Testament portray not a helpless, speechless baby Jesus, but one that can give his Mother sermons the day he was born and that as a child blasts with lightning his playmates when they are mean to him and then resurrects them when his Mother tells him it is not nice to kill one’s playmates. Other later, Gnostic, Gospels divide the Christ from Jesus and say that Christ never suffered on the Cross. Against all these views, the Church teaches that as difficult as it may be to understand, Jesus Christ was both truly God and truly Man. God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth shared all our limitations, weakness, and silly quirks. He was subject to natural evil like the rest of us. The most obvious example is his unjust death by torture at the hands of the Roman Empire. But despite this, he never resisted God. Though a typical adolescent in some ways in today’s story, he is unusual in his openness to God. William Stringfellow wrote,
“Jesus Christ means that God cares extremely, decisively, inclusively, immediately, for the ordinary, transient, proud, wonderful, besetting, frivolous, hectic, lusty things of human life. The reconciliation of God and the world in Jesus Christ means that in Christ there is a radical and integral relationship of all human beings and of all things. In Christ all things are held together (Col. 1:17b)” (A Public and Private Faith, 1962, 40-44).
This means it is OK to be human. Incarnation tells us to accept who we are—gifts, and strengths, disabilities and ugly deficiencies and all. We must accept who others are as well. We must be gentle both on them and ourselves. We must respond to the glimpses of glory, to the thin places, in our lives. Seeking to let God finish his creative work in us, trying to amend our lives, both personally and communally, requires an open-ended listening, a total trust in God’s good intentions for us.
As God became truly human in Jesus, let us accept our own humanity, with all its limitations and failings. And as Jesus accepted the Father's will in all things, let us open ourselves to listen to God and follow where Jesus leads us. In the Name of God, Amen.