Christmas is the season of parties and gatherings, which take much preparation. One of the key things we do to prepare for people to come over is clean. When hosting …
- Are you the one who does most of the cleaning?
- Do you enjoy cleaning?
Now think about yourself as a guest at a Christmas-time gathering. No need to answer out loud, but if the Holy Spirit moves you to, go right ahead.
- Do you judge the cleanliness of your host’s dwelling?
- Do you judge the stuff? Yes?
- Do you whisper remarks to others while at the gathering about the dust, the weird, eclectic knickknacks, or whatever the conditions may be?
- Do you wait until you get home to talk to others about the conditions and/or the stuff?
No matter where we find ourselves in the midst of these questions, I think we can all agree that cleaning, or at least tidying up, our dwelling before guests arrive is an important part of being a hospitable host. Likewise, as a guest, appreciating and not judging the host’s preparation and dwelling is an important part of being a genuinely gracious guest. These are basic cultural expectations we have when it comes to hosting and being a guest. These expectations are so basic that we probably don’t spend much, if any, time self-reflecting on them … but we ignore self-reflection at our own peril.
Our culture and society is full of expectations that we look and act in very particular ways. There are unwritten codes of social conformity for just about everything, for personal hygiene, dining etiquette, punctuality, educational attainment, vocational discernment, job promotion, civil engagement, political correctness, compliance with the dictates of parents, teachers, bosses, and police, and so on. And there are punishments for our violations of these expectations, ranging from minor vocal disapproval from our parents … to being verbally bullied by the “cool” crowd at school … to being arrested and sometimes shot by the police … to being crucified on a cross.
We have a simple word for this enculturating process of expectations and punishments for violations of social expectations: conformity. Literally, from the Latin, this word “conform” means “with” or “to form.” This is the purpose of these many expectations: to form us. Cultural expectations are mostly positive because they form us in healthy ways, ways that form us into decent members of society in which we get along with each other quite nicely. And, in fact, we often do really good things for each other. For example, just yesterday a group of 19 of us from this church joined dozens of others from different groups of their own at Feed My Starving Children to pack nutritious meals to feed 90 children for a whole year, all within 90 minutes time. It cost $7200 to buy that food and support the whole system necessary to get that food to the children that will eat it. All of that happens purely because a bunch of people want to do a good thing in response to the vast wealth inequality in this world. Or, in the Christian theology of Feed My Starving Children, people do those things because that’s what Jesus did and that’s what Jesus expects his followers to do. The followers of Jesus have taught for 2000 years that we are literally to conform ourselves to Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians who lived in the very center of the power structures that crucified Jesus: “8:28 We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters” (CEB).
Of course a minority of cultural expectations conform us in unhealthy ways, too. One such unhealthy expectation may be the corruption of the healthy expectation to provide decent shelter and amenities for our families by conforming us to living beyond our means. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 American Community Survey, just before the subprime crisis that caused the financial meltdown, about half of all Americans paid 30% or more of their income on housing costs. At 30% of income and more you are considered “housing-cost burdened.” Perhaps one of the greatest corruptions of a good expectation, the simple one of being likeable, is the consumer-entertainment complex that thrives on celebrity gossip, a 24×7 news cycle, and now social networking that literally conforms you and me to being an actor on the world’s hyperactive stage. I can post a picture on Facebook, and if it’s the right time of day and it gets caught up by the social networking winds, it might get a few dozen likes. That’s cool. I like sharing a picture here and there. And I think it’s really cool that some people I admire, like the musician Tony Levin, regularly share their own pictures, especially when they’re on stage with Peter Gabriel! It’s like I’m right there, on stage, in front of thousands of people at Wembley Arena in London! For the sake of giggles, I checked Justin Bieber’s Twitter feed to see that he has 315,000 likes on his latest selfie. Good for him. It’s so easy to get raptured up into the hyperactive consumer-entertainment complex. By the way, Pentatonix has 16.5 million views of their “Mary, Did You Know?” YouTube in less than a month. Watching that video is like living in heaven for four minutes.
Whether we like it or not, the new cultural expectation is that we all are “on stage.” No longer can we live within the small, relatively private realm of family and friends and be evaluated, OK, let’s be honest, judged by our small peer group based on how we live up to cultural expectations. Now everything we do has the potential to go “viral” and “global” within a matter of hours, no matter who we are, what we do for a living, or where we live. And this potentiality is totally beyond our individual control or anyone’s individual control. Not getting yourself churned and burned in social media or worse, the 24×7 news cycle, for doing or saying something inappropriate is one reason why it’s so important to conform yourself, in the very least, to the cultural expectations of civility, respect, and humility. As my mom says in her book about the “soft skills” of personal presentation, professional image, and workplace savvy, “When these soft skills are present, they are hardly noticed .. yet, when these skills are missing, everyone notices.” This is why a smart company like Disney in their theme parks calls their employees “cast members.” When you’re in a Disney park you may see signs that say, “Cast members only.” Not “staff,” not “employees,” not “crew.” “Cast members.” Their company wants all employees to know they are all on stage. Everyone who works for Disney in a theme park is a “cast member,” from the people that sweep the floors and take out the garbage to the people that perform on stage as Nemo, Marlin, and Dory.
Can you see yourself this way? As always on stage? I’m not asking you if you see yourself as the center of attention. I’m not asking you if you feel the pressure of what it’s like to be on stage. I’m asking you to see yourself and your life within the metaphor of “the stage” as in Shakespeare’s monologue in As You Like It:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school.
That’s the first third of the monologue. Can you see yourself in your current stage of life and embrace the stage of life you’re in? Without battling yourself and others? Without trying desperately to go back to some past stage of life? Without holding on to a stage of life you know you should be well beyond? High schoolers, are you “unwilling to school” because you’ve “done school” now for ten or more years? Can you see yourself where you are now, in this current stage of life, and trust God without bargaining with God to get you out of this current stage of life? Can you see yourself for who you truly are, a simple child of God, despite the swirl of social expectations placed upon you to be and to act in so many particular ways, ways that you may even find suffocating?
Sometimes, at just the right time when we’ve been struggling with where we’re at in life, something unexpected happens, something that presents us with a fork in the road, a fork that may have many tines representing many directions we can go. This is what happened to Mary and Joseph. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Luke links the the birth of the messiah to a decree from the emperor, which tells us the significance of the events that lay ahead for Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus. These events will have worldwide impact. Did unwed, teenage virgin Mary and her fiance Joseph know what they would go through as the parents of Jesus? In the words of the song, “Mary, Did You Know?” “Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new? This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.”
Mary and Joseph stand in this story of Luke 2 as proxies for the whole of humanity, passively following social and cultural expectations, even obeying an imperial decree, yet finding no place to bring into the world the expected messiah, the deliverer of the whole of humanity. For Mary and Joseph as expectants parents, their immediate need is most basic: find a place to deliver the baby. Finding no room, they wind up in what is likely a cave, and Mary gives birth to Jesus and places him in a manger, which is a feeding trough for animals.
The symbolism is so easy to miss as Christmas tradition has transformed this scene into a humbling sequence of events, namely finding no room in a motel, as it modern parlance, with the humble gathering of pastoralists (the shepherds), and then Jesus is swaddled and placed in a pile of hay. Let’s look at this story another way. Mary is perhaps 14 or 15. She is unwed to Joseph. They’re poor Galileans from the north. Mary is near full-term with her baby. And then comes the imperial decree, which, by all practical purposes, evicts them from their hometown. They travel a treacherous 80-mile journey. And then no one is willing to give them a room to give birth, so they have to go to a cave where animals live. And then they have nowhere to place Jesus after he’s born, so they put him in the animals’ messy feeding trough. If that’s not enough, the family is visited by people who live a dirty, scummy, and smelly life as shepherds, a despised occupation because many shepherds would let their animals run roughshod over people’s lands. What’s the symbolism all the way through? The people of Israel, and the world, reject the messiah, even before and as he is born, just as the prophet Isaiah prophesied in the beginning of his book:
Hear you heavens, and listen earth,
for the Lord has spoken:
I reared children; I raised them,
and they turned against me!
An ox knows its owner,
and a donkey its master’s feeding trough.
But Israel doesn’t know;
my people do not understand.
In the words of the song again:
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.
No, Mary didn’t know. There’s no indication in Luke’s gospel that she knew who Jesus was or would be. This further magnifies the theme of rejection because, in fact, in Luke 1 at the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel tells Mary point blank that her baby is “the Son of the Most High [and] of his kingdom there will be no end,” she asks how can she be pregnant? In other words, she asks, but what about me? A few weeks or months after the birth in Luke 2:33 when Simeon tells Mary and Joseph about seeing in baby Jesus “salvation” and “revelation,” Luke writes, “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” In other words, this whole “savior” thing was news to them. They have had information, even from angels, but did they know?
The next story in Luke is about how Mary and Joseph lost Jesus in Jerusalem for several days! So what’s going on here? Have we idealized the first Christmas so much that we fail to see the deeper reality present in the story? I think we have. But it’s not our fault, the idealization has accumulated over centuries of customs and traditions emerging from normal everyday people like you and me trying wonderfully to celebrate the good news of God being with us, Emmanuel. It makes sense that we want to be amazed by and marvel at this special season, and we are right to want those special experiences and celebrations. But without self-reflection, without appreciating where we are in life, without putting the messiness of life in its proper context as temporary and within God’s more humble story of entering the world as a rejected baby, then we’re looking to be moved by magic instead of restored by reality.
The real gift of Christmas is that God comes into our world looking for us, even though we are so conformed to our own individual and societal expectations. If we feel guilty because we just can’t get that Christmas spirit of accepting the innocent baby Jesus into our heart, then cut yourself some slack! The default mode of Christmas expectation from the very beginning was and continues to be that we just don’t get it! And that’s OK! That’s precisely why Christmas exists in the first place!
If we can learn anything from Mary it may be these words about her in Luke 2:19: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Those words refer to the story the shepherds told her about their experience with the angels. It was the experience of others that gave Mary some perspective and breathing space to take it all in. This Christmas season, may you unknowingly provide that holy space for others and may others provide that holy space for you to treasure and ponder Christ in your heart so that you may be conformed to him. Amen.