“Who’s Holding the Baby” by Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! I am so glad to be continuing our worship from Christmas Eve on Friday, and to once again wish you a merry Christmas. The gifts may all be unwrapped and you are now getting through the leftovers of Christmas dinner, but the baby Jesus just got here. Anyone who has shared a house with a new baby knows that means there is a lot to do.
I don’t know, and didn’t check, to see if in the ten years I have been on the pastoral staff here at Creekside if I have preached from the epistle of Titus before. It’s a short letter, relative to some others attributed to the apostle Paul — it’s only 3 chapters long. It’s a letter to Paul’s co-worker and fellow evangelist, Titus, and the letter is focused on preaching sound doctrine. In Titus 1:9, Paul describes a leader as someone who “Has a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching, so that he may be able to preach with sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.” That is a high calling, and it is my privilege to be a part of that calling.
I am not here to refute anyone today, but I want to underline the passage which Karen read for us this morning, that the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. That is the meaning and the purpose of Christmas: the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all (Amen?) But the work of Christmas does not end with the birth of Jesus. Verse 14 says, “He gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” That sentence construction is a bit awkward, but what I take that to mean is that Jesus has saved us for a purpose — not only to ensure our eternity, but so that we can make a difference with what we do here on earth. We have been saved so that we can continue the work of Jesus.
Some of my favorite Christmas decorations are nativity sets: three dimensional figures of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. These may also include shepherds, sheep, a cow or a donkey, and angel, and wise men, who are inevitably accompanied by a camel. I have several nativity sets at home, including one for my grandchildren which was knit by Lynne Foland; I have a little Celtic nativity on the desk in my office; Sue Noffsinger has written about the one-armed Jesus in their nativity at home; you have probably noticed the Willow Tree nativity set in the Gathering Area which was purchased by Sunday School classes when we moved into this building, and the floor-size figures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus which were a memorial gift. We also have a plastic Fisher-Price Little People set in the nursery. There are all kinds of styles and different materials from countries and cultures all around the world. I was in someone’s home this December, and noticed a nativity set there which had something I didn’t recall seeing before: these were stylized terracotta figures of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, and Joseph was holding the baby. Which got me to thinking, once Jesus has been born, who is holding the baby? [Slide]
This picture is titled “In the Hands of the Father.” Take a moment to see what speaks to you.
Here’s what the artist has written about it:
During quiet times when I think of the Savior’s birth, I am truly humbled by its sacred nature and by the events that occurred both before and after. I think of Mary holding the infant surrounded by wise men and shepherds that have come from far away to honor and pay respect.
But when I think of Joseph, I think of a young man that exercised great faith in a difficult situation prior to the birth. I think of a man who loved Mary very much and was more concerned with her needs than that of his own. I chose to portray Joseph taking a turn nurturing the newborn infant while Mary was able to get some much needed rest. The only earthly witnesses to his kindness are the animals found in the manger, who seem to sense the divine nature of his goodness. “In the Hands of the Father” reflects the great responsibility that Joseph felt, but at the same time was able to draw strength from being in the hands of someone much greater than his own.
The artist has what I found to be an interesting story: his name is Roger Loveless; I believe he is Church of the Latter Day Saints, or Mormon. He graduated from Utah State University, then moved to Los Angeles to begin a freelance career in illustration. Most of his clients have come from the entertainment industry, including Milton Bradley, Nickelodeon, and G.I. Joe products. His Wikipedia page lists a bunch of credits for Dungeons and Dragons, including Tome of Magic and Warlock of the Stonecrowns, and then adds, “Loveless is also known for his inspirational images of Jesus Christ.” It is certainly a varied portfolio
I am drawn to the idea of Joseph holding the newborn Jesus. As far as this particular image is concerned, I think Mary should look more wiped out — like, could her hair be a little messy?– and the stable shouldn’t be quite as neat and tidy, but we are all entitled to our own imagination. I have to confess, I am a bit bemused when I hear — as I sometimes do — people fuss about why we don’t give Joseph a bigger role in the Christmas story. As if men just don’t get enough space in the pages of the Bible. Really? I don’t want to minimize Joseph’s role in Jesus’ birth, but Joseph’s greatest contribution to Mary’s pregnancy may be what he didn’t do: on the advice of an angel he didn’t end their engagement and disgrace her, or have her punished. Of course, now that Jesus has been born, Joseph does have the man-sized role of being a father; something which the Bible hardly mentions about him.
This is a fine image, but I don’t think we need to make Joseph a hero for holding his newborn son: especially considering that Mary had been carrying that child for nine months, made a trip to Bethlehem late in her pregnancy and gave birth in a stable without a midwife to help her. I think Mary’s entitled to some rest. Many of you can remember and some of you have recently experienced that holding a baby is not only for mothers and not only for women, it is for anyone who is sensitive to the baby’s needs, and able to be flexible about their own needs. I don’t know whom you most identify with in this image on this day after Christmas: You may feel the tenderness and wonder of Joseph, or maybe, like Mary, you are wiped out and just need some rest. You may be sheepish like those animals off to the side, but if you identify with the animal behind Mary, I’m not sure I want to know about that.
My point is, it is the work of everyone who believes and has accepted the salvation of Christ to hold the baby. But part of that work — and I want you to hear this, because I believe it’s important — part of the work is to allow someone else to hold the baby so that we can rest. None of us is required to be in labor all the time; no one is a hero for doing what they are able and are called to do: our work and our rest can both be sacred. The trick is finding that balance, and affirming others who are searching for that balance for themselves. [Slide Down]
Every Christmas we celebrate the arrival of the baby Jesus, and every year the lectionary readings of the church remind us that Jesus’ birth is not the end of the story: it isn’t even the beginning of the story — the story began with the Word present in the beginning with God, a story foretold by the prophets, a story which has continued for more than 2,000 years. But this is the time when we join the story: not merely as spectators to a Bethlehem birth which we’ve heard about for years, but participants in the work of Christmas. When are we going to hold the baby, and when do we need someone else to hold the baby for us? If you’ve ever been in a house with an infant, you know that there are plenty of things to be done. There may be lone actors out there who are talented and have a lot of stamina, but the work of Christ is meant to be done in community, by the family of faith. We need the energy of those who are young, the wisdom of those who are no longer young, and the whole variety of gifts which serve a family and serve the family of God. Sometimes we find our role by trial and error: we’re not sure how we fit in, or what God wants us to do. Here’s what I would say: Show up. You don’t have to be doing something all the time. If you come with an open heart and a willingness to love Jesus Christ and accept Christ’s love for you, you will discover how God can use you. What I know for sure is, God can use anyone, God can use everyone through Jesus Christ to serve the world. It doesn’t matter what gifts you have or don’t have; it doesn’t matter who you have been or haven’t been; it doesn’t matter who you know or don’t know. The grace of God in Jesus Christ has appeared bringing salvation to all. When we accept that salvation and dedicate our work — and our rest — to Christ, we will learn the mystery of what we are meant to do and be.
God bless you in this Christmas season. Amen.