A sabbath of gentle surprises...

Today worship was full of surprises. First, my colleague and director of
music was ill and couldn't be present. Second, on what is typically a "low" Sunday (after a major feast day), the crowd is always smaller; a variety of guests are also likely to be present, too. And third, there is a flu bug infecting many in our community who might have ordinarily have been present, so participation was even more sparse than expected.

Still... it was a gas. My stalwart band of vocalists regrouped with me for some a capella Christmas carols. We pulled out our respective music books and added guitar to few others. And a key musician in the band stepped up to the plate to play both the offering and Eucharistic tunes with grace and verve. It was simple, joy-filled and refreshing.

My message was grounded in this simple and direct question: what rituals are life-giving for you and your loved ones during this season? The gospel text for today - Luke 2 - set the stage with the Holy Family following the purification ritual for Mary and the dedication of the first born son ritual for Jesus. I noted that our cousins in Judaism use rituals to: a) link themselves to their tradition and b) to let the tradition remind them of God's covenant and historic presence in their lives throughout history.

In the life of Jesus, for example, the scripture tells us that there were 2 or 3 rituals essential for an observant Jewish family to share with their children. As a male child, 8 days after his birth, Jesus was circumcised – that’s a ritual – so what is the meaning of this ritual?  It marked Jesus as part of the Jewish tribe – in the most intimate way it was a physical sign that Jesus belonged to a unique people. Is there a Christian ritual that is similar to this?  What about baptism?

Another ritual that is a part of the Christ child’s story is his dedication to the Lord 40 days after his birth.  This has two parts and both are interesting: 
According to Leviticus 12, after a woman gives birth to a son, she is impure for forty days: why 40 days? At the end of that period, she is to bring an offering to the temple, which the priest offers as a sacrifice, and then she is judged to be ritually pure again.

Do you recall the offering that was given for this sacrifice?  Two doves or pigeons – doves were too expensive for most folk so unblemished pigeons were used for the sacrifice – and why were blood sacrifices necessary? Blood was understood to be the essence of life – and when pure blood was poured on the altar it was believed to cover over the impurities that happened during daily life – so pigeons, doves, lambs, goats and bulls were often part of a sacrifice in order to cover impurities with the essence of life.

That’s the first part of today’s story about ritual – the cleansing of Mary – but there is another part: the dedication of the first born son to the Lord. Exodus 13:2, 12, 15 states that every first-born male (which “opens the womb”), whether human or animal, “belongs” to the Lord (cf. 34:20). While (clean) animals (Leviticus 27:27) would be sacrificed, first-born sons needed to be redeemed (Exodus 13:12-15.) Do you get the distinction?  The first born male animal given to the Lord would purify the people; the first born child would not be slaughtered but given over to another type of sacrifice. 

One text, Numbers 3:46-51, tells us that this sacrifice – this redemption – involved the payment of five shekels to the priesthood. But another text, perhaps and older one Numbers 3:11-13; 8:16-18 says that the tribe of the Levites – one of the 12 tribes of Israel and the specific tribe dedicated to the priesthood – now takes the place of the first-born sons of Israel as the Lord’s possession. Are you with me? The priesthood now becomes the rituals of redemption; it is a way of honoring the idea that the first-born son “belongs” to the Lord in a special way: in fact, it institutionalizes a way for the people of Israel to serve God. (thanks to Working Preacher for these insights)

Now here’s a deeper question:  Luke consciously chooses to tell us that Jesus and his family were devout Jews who honored their tradition and observed its rituals. Luke also wants to help his readers know one thing more:  that the rituals and commitments that shaped Jesus and Mary are much like that of two other important Jews:  Samuel and Hannah. Their story is in the background of what Luke writes – and the essence goes like this: Hannah had no child and prayed to the Lord for a son; she vowed that if she gave birth, this child would be dedicated to the Lord. So, when Samuel was born, Hannah honored her promises, brought the baby to the Temple where he was “lent to the Lord for all of his life” as he became a priest.

What our story wants to show is that Mary did the same thing with Jesus: she gave him to the Lord for life. In this we are told that the way of Jesus is set apart – holy – dedicated to the service of God in all things. So in our own Christmas rituals, let me ask you: are there some that link you to the goodness of God's grace - and others that just suck the life out of you?

I noted that in our small family we've quit trying to send Christmas cards out BEFORE Christmas!  As a clergy family, there's just too much to do. So while we love receiving cards and letters, we wait for the 12 days of Christmas - after all the busyness is over - to attend to this ritual. This way it is life giving, it connects us in love to one another and is is born of God's grace not social obligation or guilt.

Worship continued with Eucharist and then closed by singing an Appalachian setting of the Canticle of Simeon - one that we might want to use on a regular basis for worship - plus an a capella recap of "Joy to the World." It was a gentle way to rest within the Sabbath - and while I missed my colleagues and pray for their healing - I am grateful for the spirit of solidarity that brought us closer together, too.

Lord, bid your servant go in peace, Your word is now fulfilled.
These eyes have seen salvation's dawn, this child so long foretold
This is the Savior of the world, the Gentiles promised light,
God's glory dwelling in our midst, the joy of Israel.



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