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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.
Merry Christmas! The church has always celebrated the days from December 25th Christmas to January 6th as the Twelve Days of Christmas. It is the season to reflect on the earliest days of Jesus’ life. Scripture itself actually tells us very little about Jesus’ infancy and boyhood, and hurries over these with great brevity. At the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII promoted the observance of the Sunday after Christmas as a day for the Roman Catholic Church to honor the Holy Family as a model for the Christian family. And since Lutherans are not against the family, after all we can complain like our Catholic neighbors when our children don’t visit, and complain just as strongly when they stay too long, so we have followed suit and honor this day for the Holy Family as well.
The gospel we have heard today is perhaps the only story in the Bible where we do read of Jesus’ role in the Holy Family and are reminded that the “Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” did indeed cause a few tears and gray hairs. There are of course legends recorded in the non-canonical writings such as “The Infancy Gospel of St. Thomas.” Here you can read of Jesus as a child breathing life into birds he fashions out of clay, and leading wild lions out of the city to the amazement of his neighbors. There is even a story of Jesus raising an angry man back from the dead. Apparently, the man was scolding Jesus and was struck dead. Mary and Joseph pleaded with Jesus to make him bring him back to life.
On this Sunday, dedicated to the Holy Family, I would like to meditate on a handful of these stories and legends. It is a Christmas reverie of sorts, of how they formed Jesus into the loving and caring Savior he would become.
Legends have often provided the names, colors and description of our Christmas characters. In Saint Matthew’s gospel, you will find no mention of the number of wise men or magi. We merely read that three gifts were offered, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Legend and tradition have informed us that there were three. Tradition also states that their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar, and that they came from Asia, Europe and Africa. The story of King Herod’s slaying of the innocent children of Bethlehem, and the Holy Family seeking refuge in Egypt, has given us another name as well, a thief named Dismas.
When Joseph and Mary were on their way to Egypt, they were confronted by robbers. One of the robbers wished to murder the Holy Family and to steal the little store of goods that they were hiding… the gold, frankincense and myrrh that they had had been given by the three kings. But something about the baby Jesus went straight to the heart of the young thief named Dismas. He refused to allow any harm the Holy Family. He looked at the tiny child wrapped warmly in blankets, and held lovingly in Mary’s arms and said, “O most blessed of children, if ever there comes a time for having mercy on me, then remember me, and forget not this hour.” So, the legend says that Jesus and the thief Dismas met again at Mount of Calvary on the day of his crucifixion, and Dismas, now the penitent thief on the cross, received the forgiveness and mercy that his soul was seeking. His words echo the ancient scripture, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” To which Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
The second legend is much more imaginative. The Holy Family was on their way to Egypt, when King Herod ordered his soldiers to hasten unto Bethlehem and the surrounding territory and to kill all children two years and under. In the Gospel of James, we read that John the Baptist’s own father Zechariah was killed in this political purge. As the evening came, the Holy Family was weary and they sought refuge in a cave. It was very cold, so cold that the ground was white with hoar frost. A little spider saw the infant Jesus, and he wished so much that he could so something to keep him warm in the cold night. He decided to do the only thing that he could do. He would spin a web across the entrance of the cave to make, as it were, a curtain there.
Along the path came a detachment of Herod’s soldiers. When they came to the cave, they were about to burst in to search it, but their captain noticed the spider’s web, covered with the frost and stretched across the entrance to the cave. “Look,” he said, “At the spider’s web there. It is quite unbroken, and there cannot possibly be anyone in the cave, for they would have torn the web.” So the soldiers passed on and left the Holy Family in peace. And the legend states, that to this day, this is why we put tinsel upon our Christmas trees, to remind us of the spider’s web covered with frost that protected our Savior. It also reminds us that no gift offered to the Lord, is too small or forgotten.
Finally, we turn to Jesus’ adolescence which is recorded in scripture. I am sure that St. Luke’s story is the edited version of the true conversation between mother and son. What Jewish mother, finding her missing child after three days, would simply be amazed? Can you imagine your mother saying in polite English, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” I don’t think so. It certainly wouldn’t be the response in our home. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that when Jesus went back to Nazareth, he “was obedient to them.” 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. And in so doing, St. Luke highlights that families can be life’s greatest blessing and as a source of guidance.
Since the time of the early church, these stories of Jesus’ childhood, especially the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, have inspired Christian men and women to look again upon the challenges of their faith. Now this may seem peculiar to you. After all, these stories of human brutality and hatred seem so contrary to the joy of this festive season. And it’s true, in the midst of the flurry of Christmas activity, this portion of the gospel and legends could easily be overlooked. But my friends, there is a harsh reality to the story of our Savior’s childhood that cannot be dismissed. This world of pain is the world our Lord came to redeem. This world of sorrow is the world the infant Jesus came to save.
You see, the Christmas gospel is not simply the story of our Savior resting in a manger, but it is the story of God’s wondrous love. It is the story of the homeless seeking refuge. It is the story of the persecuted seeking protection in a reign of terror. It is the story of God’s innocent ones being neglected. It is the story of poor nations seeking the charity and mercy of richer nations. It is the story of warring factions struggling for power. It is the story of a world that so closely resembles our own. A world in which we ourselves feel helpless to change the march of time. But my friends, it is also the story of a gracious God who so loved his creation that he was willing to place his only son in arms way. And that is the true wonder of Christmas.
So how do these stories continue to inspire us and guide our faith? Isn’t that after all what you and I should feel in this Christmas season? We read in the Gospel of Saint Luke, that the shepherds having seen the child returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, we read that the wise men, knelt down before Jesus and paid him homage, and they returned home by another road. No doubt, Jesus himself was changed by the retelling of these stories. So how do these stories change your own Christian faith?
To close, let me offer three suggestions to inspire and strengthen your faith at this Christmastide. Perhaps you can use these as resolutions for the New Year as well.
First of all, Jesus’ stories from infancy and childhood helped him grow in compassion for those in need. It is Christ-like seek to help the poor and needy. Every year Jesus journeyed with his family from Nazareth to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. It was there they were reminded of the story that they had had once been strangers and slaves in a foreign land. The stories of Jesus’ childhood remind us that we too can find ways to help those from distant shores, victims of war, and especially oppressed children. It has been written, if you want to live a meaningful life, find a place where it meets face to face with the world’s suffering. Our Lord Jesus has identified himself most intimately with these, the disenfranchised. He once counted himself among the world’s misbegotten. Like the penitent thief, Dismas, Jesus will show mercy and favor to those who have shown mercy. And he will remember you when he comes into his kingdom.
Second, do not avoid suffering even in the midst of the joyous season of Christmas. Where there is a family member dying, go to them. Where a friend is sick, be near to them. Where a child is struggling, assist them… even if it causes you discomfort and anxiety. In the Letter to the Hebrews, the apostle has captured a divine truth. “It was fitting that God in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Remember my friends, the wooden cross is as much of the Christmas story as is the wooden manger. Jesus came to save by laying down his life.
And finally, let your acts of charity be as nimble and as delicate as the Spider’s Web. In God’s hands your tiny gestures will be made into silver strands. In God’s hands your fervent activity will be made holy unto God. In God’s hands your work of love will offer protection for even the most helpless and innocent child. It is that love which first came down to you at Christmas. Now let that same love, which guided the Holy Family, guide and change you. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.