What is it you are hoping for this Christmas? Is it a wonderful family gathering around the dining room table, where uncle Harry holds back a bit on his drinking and aunt Suzie avoids calling him out for his poor choice of a rather gaudy sports jacket? Is it that your children will show some genuine appreciation for the gift you searched high and low to find? Or maybe you just hope everybody will agree to watch "Christmas Miracle on 34rd street together." And that nobody will grab the remote and interrupt the program to catch the NFL football game. Sometimes the expectations for that perfect Christmas can get pretty large and impossible to reach.
Seven years ago, my son John and I left on Christmas morning to travel to Sarnia to be with my father and my wife by the bedside of my mother who was at St. Joseph’s Hospice, being medicated through the final stages of pancreatic cancer. My expectations were pretty low for Christmas that year. But we were cared for over the next 48 hours by loving volunteers and sensitive nursing staff who were present with us in ways I had never experienced before. It was a difficult, yet wonderful experience that I see replicated at Bethell House in Inglewood.
In today’s story of Mary and Joseph, God’s work upsets comfortable social expectations and conventions. The first Christmas was not produced by a flawless lead-up and elaborate preparations expecting an ‘over the top’ outcome. Certainly most people would not expect the incarnation to happen through the life of a young virgin girl, Mary. This is just a piece of the story that makes the pretty nativity scene rather scandalous. It is a reminder that sometimes our "perfect Christmas" doesn’t exactly pan out as expected, but it may have elements of grace and faithfulness, regardless.
In Matthew Joseph is presented with a dilemma. What should he do? Following the social conventions of his day, Joseph at first resolved "to dismiss [Mary] quietly" that is, until a dream encounter with an angel changed his mind. "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceieved in her is of the Holy Spirit.."
As pre Christmas commercialism expands, tempting us by slashing sale prices, seeming to fill every available space in the popular consciousness, the world would just as soon "dismiss [Jesus] quietly." The world would just as soon have done with much of the religious symbolism of the holiday, replacing it with the infinitely more malleable and universal "Season's Greetings" and Santa Claus.
"Dismiss" is a chillingly ‘heartless’ word. It is not outright rejection or disowning, but is rather based on elaborate rationalization. To dismiss someone, we must feel we are justified in doing so. We must feel that we are more important than they, and that their very existence somehow collides with our personal priorities. "Dismiss" describes what we so often do, in our minds, to the person holding up the supermarket checkout line, or the other driver who annoys us on the highway, or the homeless person asking for a handout on the street.
"Dismiss" probably describes, also, how the Nazis first responded to the German Jews. The greatest horror of this century started not with concentration camps, but with ethnic slurs and rude political cartoons. Once they had managed to write off their neighbours' essential humanity without ethical qualms, they escalated their persecution, committing more serious crimes.
"Dismiss" also describes the military terminology when they described in the ‘air raids’ of Afganhistan or Syria, the death of civilians as "collateral damage." The term is impersonal, bureaucratic, uncaring.
Once we truly get to know others, they become three dimensional to us. Dismissing them becomes more difficult, and ultimately impossible as impossible as it turned out to be for Joseph to dismiss his betrothed.
Initially, Joseph took it on trust, based on his dream message, that he should not follow the dictates of his culture and dismiss Mary, along with her unborn child. We imagine that once he connected with her on a deeper level, and later once he held the newborn Jesus in his arms and looked into his eyes, he knew intuitively that he could never dismiss either one of them.
Jesus is not some abstract idea, some two dimensional ethical model. He is a person. Together, we are in relationship. And we can't dismiss someone with whom we're in relationship.
There is a story about a Salvation Army officer who might have been inclined, at first, to dismiss a couple who had come seeking help:
This story appeared in an issue of the "War Cry", the Salvation Army magazine, a few Christmases ago. It was told by a Salvation Army major, Ed Forster, who serves in a town in New England. At the end of a long day, with thoughts of a hot, home cooked meal occupying his mind, Major Forster was surprised when his social service director, Mrs. Lane, rushed into his office. "Captain," she said his rank then "you've just got to come and meet them."
"Who do you want me to meet?" he asked wearily.
"The Christmas couple," she said with seeming delight. There were literally hundreds of people who had applied to their office for Christmas assistance that week, and none of them had been described as "the Christmas family" or "the Christmas couple."
"Do you have Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus in your office?" he quipped.
"No," she said firmly, "but these people really need our help and I *know* that the Lord wants us to help them."
He went into the social service office, and was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Manning. They were a young couple. He had a deep brown beard, she was thin, with light hair. She wore a huge overcoat to protect her from the blasts of icy air which swirled around the building. Joseph stood to greet the captain, but his wife remained seated, as if she were ill. Her face looked pale, as he looked at her.
Mrs. Lane began to explain their circumstances to the captain. "Joseph and his wife, Mary, are originally from our town. They left some time ago to find work and to get established. Joseph works with his hands, but construction projects fall off so much in the winter."
"Joseph and his wife, Mary..." The captain's mind replayed the words "the Christmas couple."
Mrs. Lane's voice trailed back into his consciousness: "... they need a place to stay. Mary is pregnant. They have travelled a long way today. Joseph expects to get work here right after Christmas."
His mind drifted off again. "So this is how it was. Everybody was busy, it was cold and people wanted to tend to their own needs. The inn was crowded and they were just one more family looking for lodging, nobody special, just another couple..."
"Captain?" said Mrs. Lane, bringing him back to consciousness. "Captain, can we do something?"
"Of course," he said, turning to Joseph and his young wife, Mary. "We can do something. We'll find you a place to stay."
Coincidence? Maybe, or maybe something more than coincidence. What is sure beyond doubt is that in giving joy to that expectant young couple named Mary and Joseph, those Salvation Army workers received the most precious, most wonderful gift they had received that Christmas, or any Christmas. They didn't dismiss them. Would that we could learn to do the same, with those neighbours we encounter every day, who are Christ in our midst! Thanks be to God.