The Disco Fiber Optic Holy Family

One of the things friends do for each other in seminary is exchange websites featuring bizarre religious phenomena. It helped remind us that other people do things in pursuit of serving God even stranger than work on the “Hot or Not: Theologians vs. Martyrs” bulletin board in the student lounge.

One of my favorite of these websites was a blogpost my dear friend Lindsay sent me called “Cavalcade of Bad Nativities: It Came Upon a Midnight Weird.” An Episcopalian in California had browsed through eBay and found so many strange nativity crèches that she compiled them into one spectacular gallery to share with the world.

Among the truly unfortunate ways people decided to depict the manger scene were the marshmallow nativity, the rubber ducky nativity, the inflatable nativity, the leprechaun nativity, and the celebrity nativity with Victoria Beckham as the Virgin Mary, Hugh Grant and Samuel L. Jackson as shepherds, and George W. Bush as a Wise Man, to which I’m just going to say “no comment.”

There were many other strange ways to depict Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, including the disco fiber-optic Holy Family, the rotating kitchen timer Holy Family, the hermetically sealed snow globe Holy Family, and the Area 51 Holy Family with aliens gathered at the manger. I am not making any of this up.

What this explosion of misguided creativity points to is how we idealize that moment on Christmas Night.

Mary is serene and beautiful, Joseph is quietly awed, and Baby Jesus is warm and snuggly in his swaddling clothes in the manger.

The shepherds and wisemen kneel before them while the animals in the stable and the angels in the sky look on.

Everything is warm and quiet and holy in this one perfect moment.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with cherishing this moment.

But the thing is, that moment cannot last forever, immobilized in plaster and hung as an ornament on a tree.

In real life, the shepherds and kings went home, and Mary and Joseph woke up to a strange and difficult new reality the next morning.

What happened that morning?

I’m guessing Joseph went off to register for the census, and Mary changed her baby’s diaper for the first time.

A few more days’ rest for Mary’s sore body, and then back on the road to Jerusalem for the presentation of the baby in the Temple.

When did reality sink in for Mary and Joseph?

Maybe it was the first time the baby was colicky or got a fever.

Maybe it took longer—he was starting to toddle around and almost fell in the hearth or skinned his knee or ate a cricket or any number of other routine disasters toddlers get into.

At some point for both of Jesus’ parents, it came home to them with terrifying clarity that they were entrusted with the safety and well-being of the Son of the Living God.

Do you give the three-year-old Messiah a spanking for running out in the street when a troop of Roman soldiers is galloping through the village?

Can you ground the eight-year-old Deliverer of Israel for smarting off to the rabbi at Hebrew school?

You know he didn’t mean to be impertinent, he just seems to have this mysterious river of wisdom that flows out of him from time to time and he can’t help but share it.

At some point Mary and Joseph had to have realized that Jesus wasn’t going to break.

They were released from the terror of guarding the Son of God and relaxed into the normal anxiety tempered by joy of raising a healthy, precocious little boy. I hope for the sake of their mental health that moment came sooner rather than later.

Has that moment come for you yet?

Do you trust Jesus to be there for you no matter what disaster or sin pervades your life?

Or do you try to keep him hermetically sealed in a snow globe, safe in some perfect world that doesn’t really exist?

I know I have tried to protect Jesus from the truth of my awful, nasty self, sure he couldn’t really love me if he really knew me.

But of course the truth is that Jesus loves me right through my pitiful little disguise, and he loves you too.

He loves us knowing every ugly thought we’ve ever had, every stupid, cruel thing we’ve ever done, every misguided attempt we’ve made to disguise ourselves from him and from each other.

Grace is durable.

It is not some fragile, floaty thing that only comes when we’re being prayerful and have our clothes ironed and our bills paid.

Grace is actually most likely to be found when our shame is greatest, when our fear is darkest, when our defeat seems certain.

And it all comes from Jesus. As we read in our gospel lesson this morning, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

I bet that after Mary and Joseph realized that Jesus was real, they had a lot more fun with their little boy.

Joseph stopped being afraid he would drop the Messiah and threw him up in the air when he got home from work to see little Jesus shriek with laughter.

Mary quit trying to keep him in the house and let him go outside to play and explore.

And then when he came running to her crying, she kissed his scrapes and bruises, wiped his nose, and tickled him until he laughed again.

Real life is a lot more fun than perfect life.

We are a lot more fun as real people than beating ourselves up because we can’t be perfect people. And the Jesus we follow is both real in our lives and perfect in his love for us.

One of the parishes I used to serve treasured their life-sized crèche out on the front lawn of the church. Seeing it glow in the darkness as strangers stopped to gaze at its perfection was wonderful.

One year the Baby Jesus figure was kidnapped as a prank and weeks later a high school administrator called to ask if the Baby Jesus just found in the janitor’s closet might be ours.

That part of the story may be less perfect, but it is real.

Now restored and with each pieced bolted into place to deter pranksters, the crèche once again reigns serene in the city.

When people see our church as they drive by, what is the message they receive?

We want them to risk coming inside to be welcomed into our life of prayer and service together.

Then they may experience the real, living nativity of Jesus Christ through our community, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.

This great and glorious gift of Jesus being born, God made incarnate, the Word made flesh: are you trying to freeze that moment of perfection, killing it by holding on to it too tightly?

What is your nativity scene like?

Is it cold, still, hard plastic perfection?
Or are you ready to let Jesus be real in your life?

Mary found out that the real Jesus in her life brought joy and fulfillment, and then heartbreak and grief, but at the end, new, resurrected life.

It’s scary to look down that long road, but I think I can live a real life if my Christmas gift is the real Jesus.

It all starts here, now, today.

What do you choose?