What do you do when love doesn’t look like love? It doesn’t resemble love when it fails the smell test of what you know love is supposed to actually resemble. Joseph thought that Mary was committed to him, after all they were engaged. For his part he had been faithful, but she obviously had made other arrangements. To be pregnant was bad enough but to add the crazy claim of the unorthodoxy of how the pregnancy came to be – just in no way made sense. What do you do when love – or what you think is love just doesn’t resemble love in the least.
Wednesday night we saw an unusual version of The Christmas Carol at the McPherson Theater enacted by the theater group known as WonderHeads. Thei life size puppet heads worn by the 3 actors were an amazing medium that allowed them to enact the dramatic roles. They are a physical theatre company specializing in mask performance and visual storytelling. So silently in mask they retold the story of The Christmas Carol. The plot was the same with which you are familiar. Marley was dead…Christmas was still Bah Humbug. But what I saw for the first time in this age-old classic was that this was a story about love that in no way seemed to resemble love. If there was anything loving in this story then obviously it was well hidden. It has all the elements of a love gone wrong and the ghosts of Christmas past and present bear that out. Often forgotten are the losses in Scrooge’s life of loves that had disintegrated when his dad sent him away to school and then refused to allow him to come home for the holidays. Then there was the breakup with his former supervisor’s daughter, Belle, when she realized that Scrooge was incapable of love because the primary love of his life was money. What do you do when love doesn’t look like love at all?
This season has a terrible habit of looking quite like something that it is not and eliciting from us a mass of feelings that may or may not be helpful. You may have been reminded of late that this is a season of joy – of carols and festive decorations and an increase in social gatherings. You may have felt bogged down with a heavy load of expectations that seem more like the weight of a large boulder than anything that resembles joy. What do you do when something that wreaks of love instead feels like an anvil tied around your neck? Far too often this Advent season is more about meeting the unrealistic expectations that too often impose their will and their way with us. Christmas is about love, but we are certainly not in love with the version that has been handed to us.
Perhaps we have forgotten the number of ways that first Christmas in no way resembled the love and joy that we often mistake it for. If you reread the small print from all the events in/around Bethlehem, what may have resembled love might come across a bit differently.
We aren’t told how Joseph first discovered Mary’s news. I will never forget Linda’s words to me on two occasions. “I’m pregnant.” I will never forget how I felt and all the hopes that erupted by those two words. It would have been different for Joseph. He was a respectable man. This would, in effect, mean that the life he had planned was over. He would divorce her. For us, divorce is a fact of life. In Joseph’s day, divorce was a death sentence. What had looked like love didn’t resemble love at all.
Mary had her own account of the events. She was very young. All this had been like a dream (and some of it was when the angel came to tell her that her life was going to change forever). Her immediate reaction was fear. You can smell fear when you feel that you life is in doubt, when you aren’t sure why something has happened and in no way will be able to control the outcome. Perhaps only a woman can truly know the complexity of her thoughts and feelings. She was afraid and yet the angel’s first words to her was “Mary, don’t be afraid.” Do you remember ever being told that in the face of immanent danger? Do you remember telling your children not to be afraid of the noises that go bump in the night? Right, the goblins don’t live under your bed, just theirs! The angel was trying to access Mary’s immediate and deepest fear that what and who she loved (including her own selfhood that she knew and understood was perhaps suddenly in disarray.) This is a love story but unless you read between the lines, unfortunately it often doesn’t resemble love.
Months later when the baby came and it seemed the dust had settled. It is time for those who always appear in mass to drop by when there’s news of a newborn nearby. One year ago, this week was when our grandson Malachi first made his appearance and we couldn’t wait to see him, hold him, and compare his mom’s baby picture to this new miracle. The burley shepherds were the last people you would expect to be summoned to the nursery. What a great story, right! These were the men that protected the most vulnerable animal in existence. They fought off wolves to protect the sheep, but they were not used to angels delivering their news. You often don’t read the headlines from the Bethlehem News as it may have been written “Burley Shepherds Frightened by Swarm of Angels.” Tonight, on the mesa, several shepherds report being terrified when a manifestation of heavenly beings swarmed over their sheep. They report being terrified.” To us a story told with sacred serenity, re-enacted in every Christmas pageant and recreated in carols sung world-wide is a story that looks like love but to these burley shepherds, they were just afraid. Initially it is a story that to them in no way resembled love.
Then there were the Magi who had no reason to visit a newborn. They knew neither Mary nor Joseph. They were not Jews intent to pay tribute to the reported new King of the Jews. There was none of that which would have captured their interest and caused them to set out by camels on such an industrious trip. There were no maps, no GPS, no Siri…just the stars to guide them. Oh there was that visit at Herod’s palace. He was the current King. You would think that he would know where his replacement would be. They had gifts for him and just wanted to pay him tribute. Herod had not heard a word. Their story reads that he was “disturbed.” Actually, the Magi knew more about where Jesus might be than Herod. Somewhere in Bethlehem. And then the invitation. When you find him, after you honor the child with your visit, come back and tell me where he is, so that I can visit also. As the sarcasm dripped from his lips, they made their visit, honored Jesus and left for home by another way so as to avoid the King who wanted to “honour him myself” but in the meantime had signed a death warrant for every male child in Jerusalem just to make sure this little insurrection to his authority is never able to achieve what he is predicted to achieve. Suddenly this seems anything but a story about love when the dark elements of greed and jealousy begin to dance around the edges.
We often miss these troubling elements of this story when the visions of sugarplums infect the image we have of Christmas. The Bethlehem News would have included rather troubling accounts of people’s lives on December 25, notwithstanding that the city was overrun with persons filling their inns who were there to register for a tax. Good news on the surface did not abound.
What seems like love often does not in the least resemble love and that is no more apparent than the Christmas story. Love is messy. It is uneven and often it hurts more than we understand.
But look again into the manger. What we find there is more than a child. Contained therein is more than our romantic illusions of Christmas. Lying in a manger is finally one who has come in human skin to bridge our faded illusion of love that never spoils, never loses its luster, is never dangerous, and never hurts with a love that instead actually embraces fear and sits with us through the night when the world doesn’t make sense. The image we take from the Christmas story - romantic and starlit or messy and complex may inform the way that we can take home the actual message that we are meant to embrace. At stake is not only how we view and receive the Christmas story in the way that we are intended to understand it, but to understand in a new way what the revolutionary way that this birth upends the way that we think of and receive love. Love that doesn’t look like love is exactly what Jesus intended and what Christmas means to communicate.
Theology Professor and Author, Walter Brueggemann writes in Celebrating Abundance, Devotions for Advent, This story is actually about a threat to a world empire.
Imagine the great corporate executives and all the people of harsh power in industry and schools and churches and banks and armies and tax offices who are used to having their way. Imagine the repressive part of our own lives, which are used to the silencing and crushing. Imagine all those threatened powers listening to the story of a newborn, moving relentlessly to the ending and transformation and beginnings. This is the miracle of the babies. Because the baby has come by the spirit, the world is changed. The empire is on notice. A little baby offers another way in the world that destabilizes and invites us to new trust and new freedom. Get free of the coercive power of the empire. Then act differently about power and money and land and justice and homes and food and health care. Bet on the baby and notice the new world in which we live where the empires have been subverted.
Sometimes what doesn’t resemble love is actually love in its most purest form. Immanuel means “God with us” and definitely not just when all is calm and bright but when we’re are frightened out of our wits and when the world rocks and shakes under our feet and especially when our lives are in doubt and in danger. The Isaiah passage, difficult to understand basically describes a king expecting to be attacked by an enemy empire. God reassures him that the king can trust God when life becomes dangerous. Basically, that is the Christmas message, isn’t it? Be careful of expecting a love that does not embrace risk, welcome conflict, invite challenge and endure grief because that is exactly the kind of love Christmas delivers. Merry Christmas and by the way, God loves us every one!!!