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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Over the past 30 years of pastoral ministry, I have baptized countless children. It is always an honor and a privilege, but I must say it is a special delight to baptize my own first grandchild, Ivan- the one who was so eager to enter this world- nearly three months early. So please forgive me, as I indulge in a personal reverie for this newest and youngest member of the body of Christ. You are, however, all free to listen in on this baptismal epistle.
Dear Ivan, the First Sunday after Christmas has always been known for low-church attendance. Most parishioners believe that since that had made a special trip to church during the week for Christmas, they certainly should receive dispensation for one Sunday morning service. I myself was baptized on this day, 56 years ago today at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Austin. The pastor didn’t like babies crying in church, so the First Sunday after Christmas seemed like a date when I would offend the least number of worshippers.
Now let me assure you, when our family was living in Lithuania, regardless of the Sunday, your father Vitali and uncle Alexei were always willing to go to church. You can remind them of how regular they were in attendance when they were small and that it’s a pattern you want to follow. Your father and uncle loved to sing and meet their friends at church- and as missionary kids, they loved to serve as ushers collecting the Sunday morning offering. I knew we would be light in attendance on that first Sunday after Christmas in Lithuania, but we believed in the promise where two or three are gathered in God’s name, he is present. I warned the organist that our numbers would be small as well- and they were. There were five of us- our family of four and the organist. We decided to move the service into the organ balcony where we could be closer together. We were 10 minutes into the service, when a curious, cautious and reluctant man walked into the sanctuary. He looked like the old man Simeon wandering through the temple in Jerusalem searching for the Messiah. Truly, the spirit of the Lord was upon him, and so were your father and uncle as they tugged on his sleeves leading him to our worship service in the balcony. He was equally surprised when I pulled out my felt board and began to tell the story of Simeon and the Christ Child. He was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm our missionary family. At some point, I am told, he even did dare to return again to when there would be safety in numbers.
One of the problems of the First Sunday after Christmas is that it doesn’t really know what day it should be. On some liturgical calendars it is known as the Fourth Day of Christmas which is to be remembered as the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem. Even liturgical purists have no problem transferring this commemoration to a Monday, as has been done this year. The story of Simeon is a wonderful substitute. It is especially appropriate today, when like baby Jesus, you have been presented in the church for Holy Baptism. In the Roman Catholic Church this Sunday can also be celebrated as Holy Family Sunday. It is an occasion for celebrating the roles of Mary and Joseph in raising the Christ Child. So little Ivan, I have decide to weave all of these themes together in a little meditation for you entitled- “Becoming a Wholly, Holy Family.”
Let me read one more portion of St. Luke’s gospel. It teaches us that just like you and me, Jesus was raised in a human family. St. Luke 2:41-51.
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
This is perhaps the one story in the Bible where we are reminded that the “Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” did indeed cause a few tears and gray hairs. And in spite of the joy and wonder you offer today, I can assure your parents, Ivan, that they will have tears and gray hairs as well.
Your name is a strong name -Ivan. It is the equivalent of the English name John. In St. Paul Children’s Hospital, you were affectionately referred to by the nurse as Ivan the Terrible. Obviously, they didn’t know their Russian history. You mother and Father can wait until you are two and then they will discover their own Ivan the Terrible. We do have a number of endearing Slavic variations we can use- Ivan, Vanya and Vanko. Of course, parents’ titles change as their children grow older as well. Few children refer to their parents as mother or father. More often they are known as mom and dad. Since we adopted your father and uncle from Russia when they were four and six, we were always referred to by them as mama and papa. Though your grandmother Janna had many other cutes terms of endearment, everything from Mommy to Mamouska. My names tended to be less flattering. Pop to popster, to padre, and least affectionate, the old man. This was, however, slightly better than a friend who was known to his son’s friends as the “tall, bald, cash machine.” Vitali was tempted to call me by my first name, but after a few days, it just sounded silly.
For your father’s 18th birthday, we decided to watch an episode from an old American television series called Family Ties, featuring the young actor Michael J. Fox. In this particular episode the son in the family Alex P. Keaton was preparing to celebrate his 18th birthday. His plans were to cross the state border and go to a bar with his friends. Alex’s mother, however, had quieter plans: A family birthday party with cake and ice cream. The two had a fight, and so, to defy his mother, Alex left the house and drove away with his friends. After all, he was an adult, he was 18 years old. To Alex’s surprise, his mother drove the 100 miles to the bar in the neighboring state to find him and to bring him home. She was furious and he was humiliated. This tension led to the final and poignant exchange between the mother and son after they have returned home. Alex asked, “Why did you do it? You had time to kill,” and his mother answered, “Because you hurt me.” Alex admitted cautiously that he may not have been very sensitive, and said, “You’re my mother. I don’t think about you as a person. You know what I mean.” She then answered, “Well, surprise, Alex. I am a real person. Flesh and blood. With real feelings.”
That is perhaps the lesson that we all need to learn and it begins at baptism. How often is it true in our families, that we struggle all because we treat mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers as titles rather than people with real live feelings? To become a wholly, holy family, we need to treat each other as real people created like Jesus of flesh and blood.
Little Ivan, St. Luke’s gospel contains the only story in Scripture we have of Jesus’ childhood and youth. Although, I am sure that the St. Luke’s gospel is the edited version of the true conversation between mother and son. What mother, finding her missing child after three days, would simply be amazed? I can’t imagine a mother in any family I know saying in polite terms, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” Can I imagine such a gentle conversation? I don’t think so. It certainly wouldn’t be the response in our home. Nor does it surprise me to read at the close of the passage, that when Jesus went back to Nazareth, he “was obedient to them.” He was either grounded or put into a time out for the next 18 years. Let me assure, that an agitated parent doesn’t mean an unloving or uncaring parent.
Now, you may be wondering, so why is this story of Jesus’ childhood such an important story to tell you on your baptism day? What does this have to teach us about being a “wholly, holy family?” In the telling of this event, it may be that St. Luke is helping us to discover the heart and the mind of Jesus. He is also helping us to know that Jesus understands the joys, tensions and struggles we have within our human families. But he highlights that the human family can also be one of life’s greatest blessing. We don’t have to treat each as titles, but we become a wholly, holy family when we treat each other as people with real feelings.
Ivan, over the past 16 years of living as a father to your father and uncle, I have experienced the highs and lows of parenting. I have learned that parents’ names change, and I have learned that parents can be frequently, totally confused by their children’s behavior. And frankly, children can be equally confused by their parents’ behavior. So I find comfort in this story knowing that even the holy family of Mary and Joseph who were hand picked by God were confused.
But there is one difference. And that Ivan should be your lesson today. In spite of what happened in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph did not burst into a rage nor did they shame their son with words. They seemed rather to follow the example that Jesus himself had set when he was lost in his thoughts in the temple. He listened and questioned. That is the true gift of family. For when we listen to each other as real live people, we can be like Mary, who would treasure all of these things in her heart. Yes, when you work to listen and question and treat other as people with real live feelings, you can learn to treasure even the confusion of your parents.
And when you fail, Ivan, which you will undoubtedly do, as we all do, you have been given the gift of baptism. It is in the waters of baptism, that our Heavenly Father gives you the assurance that he loves you, and forgives you and desires for you to get up and start over again. It is in the waters of baptism that he offers you the assurance that no matter whether your name changes, the title he has given you will never change. You are a child of God. And he has sealed you with his Holy Spirt and marked you with the Cross of Christ forever. There is nothing that you can do that can separate you from his love in Christ Jesus. In the waters of you have become truly his wholly, holy family. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.