So, while we are working on the book, we're pulling out some early writing from our life before Dirty Sexy Ministry (I know, did we even have much of a life before this?). This is a piece I wrote many years ago, one of the first published. Much still rings true...
What had I been thinking, to say yes to a date on Christmas Eve? Delightful, last-minute girl that I am, the day before Christmas is a celebration of chaos and resolve that I’ll start the whole Christmas delirium earlier next year so I won’t be massively overwhelmed. Or I won’t, and, like the last the decades, I’ll stare at the to-do list, made significantly more annoying with the cheerful holly berry motif dancing on the edges of the stationery. Numbers one through three included finalizing ever-changing travel plans, picking up dry cleaning, and packaging the gifts that sat on my dining room table, gleefully unwrapped. I couldn’t read number four, but the word “casserole” looked somewhat possible.
I had another to-do list for Christmas to encourage a petition for two more hours in this day. Theoretically, this one didn’t involve any of the other secular trappings of Christmas, although often, the church is just one more to-do Christmas item for people. After the gifts and parties and decor, we have to greet God incarnate, the reason for the season guilt that drives absent church goers into the pews on Christmas and Easter. Whatever our motivation, the holy space of the Church is open for those pilgrims who gather tonight, after all the insanity of the season, to quietly and solemnly greet God incarnate.
The Church, never escaping an opportunity to preen itself, gets trussed, bowed, and decorated. Candles must be lit; greenery draped from railings and pews; poinsettias placed around the altar, pulpit, and lectern; and still more greenery placed on anything that doesn’t move. People will gather this holy night when we commemorate and celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord, commonly known as Christmas Eve.
Luke’s Gospel is probably the most familiar Nativity story. Actually, it’s really the only one with adjectives. In Matthew, we get a painfully tedious list of Jesus’s ancestors and Joseph’s story, which is a bit ironic, considering Joseph had no real part in the actual conception and birth. He didn’t stone Mary for adultery, which is commendable. In Mark and John, the writers are much more concerned with the birth of John the Baptist, and Jesus appears on the scene fully grown, ready to be baptized and turn the world upside down.
Which leaves us with Luke, the patron saint of all Christmas card writers, film makers, and creche creators. We read about simple shepherds, who smelled like sheep and who liked sheep better than people; about glorious angels, who scared the hell out of those who saw them; and about God Incarnate born in a barn. Luke never gives us the gory details, like the facts that barns stink from animals and their dietary by-products, or that the afterbirth was somewhere in that place. Nope. The story is clean, pretty, and edited, so the Church decor must follow suit. No dirty or ugly for Christmas.
I begin to review the list. Service bulletins prepared and put out. Check. Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus figurines in the creche. Check. Reminder phone calls to the participants in this evening’s services. Check. Sermon for the night. Well, no. I was going to write it this afternoon, after we closed the office, but then I remembered the date.
On Christmas Eve.
I glanced at my watch. He would pick me up a little before noon, my friend told me when she called to arrange the encounter. She and her husband would meet us at the restaurant. If my date and I found each other detestable, they could run interference. I always wonder what kind of man hears the phrase, “I’d like to introduce you to a woman. Oh, by the way, she’s a priest,” and thinks, “Yes! I’m going to go out with a servant of God! I can’t think of a better way to spend time than to have a date with someone bent on offering me eternal salvation.” I glance at my watch again and wonder if it’s too late to cancel. It is, or at least in my fit of Christmas niceness, it is.
I’m very willing, even antagonistically eager, to live the messiness of God. Quietly lit stable with well-groomed donkeys and camels who amazingly don’t smell be damned. Give me a Christmas card with terrified, anti-social shepherds and blazing angels scaring the hell out of people any day. The messiness of human relationships scares the hell out of me. Because they are not controllable or even predicatable.
God, in Her elegant chaos, is perfect. Humans - not so much, and our relationships with each other are simply untidy at best and downright gross and disgusting at the worst. Whenever we enter into a relationship with another person, we experience the grind and polish of our differences. Because no human being is exactly like anyone else, neither are the relationships we form. We see in the mirror dimly as we test boundaries and discover the other and ourselves in community.
I confess this in sermons, in conversations about God and Jesus to betrothed couples, and to just about anyone else who wants to hear the party line on God and loving one another. However, when I look in the mirror dimly, I want to see clean and edited and predictable standing next to me. I want Luke to write the Gospel of my life, the way he wrote the Christmas story part, with all the untidy elements edited away. No relationship angst that involves my tears, no crashing into each others’s issues like paper wasps banging into a glass window, and no making room in my closet for his stuff, both literally and metaphorically. God just laughs and keeps working in my life.
Relationships of all shapes and sizes ask us to jump into the chaos of love. At the great moment of incarnation, when God became fully human and fully divine in the form of Jesus, God jumped into the midst of the uncomfortable, messy relationship with humanity.
Not exactly the sentiment on the annual Christmas card: God jumped. Merry Christmas.
Maybe we need pretty and tidy on Christmas Eve in the church because we know so much of our lives is anything but. Maybe I’d rather date Jesus.
Dating Jesus is malleable enough on the surface. I can imagine this funny, charming man with dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes who always knows just the right thing to say at the right time. From the woman at the well to the woman who washed Jesus’s feet with exotic perfume and her hair, Jesus had some sexual energy.
Not that I fantasize about Jesus in that way. I had far too many years of Baptist indoctrination that I’ve yet to exorcize from my soul to include fully the sexuality of Jesus in the human aspect of God the Son. And I do think the parable habit of his would really get on my nerves after a while. I do, however, often find myself in the web of me-ness in my relationship with Jesus. The whole personal relationship with Jesus Christ shtick smacks of me-ness. I love Jesus, and I know Jesus as my personal friend and savior, Christians around the church proclaim. Surely Jesus is a liberal who would glowingly approve of all the things I support and happily agree with my justifications of personal grudges and self-righteous anger. God so loved the world and everyone in it, not just the people I happen to like. Jesus is not all about me, but all about us, particularly how we love each other and live together as the “us” of the world. Like my relationships with friends, family, and significant others, my relationship with Jesus is not easy or effortless. Relationships demand that we become aware of the other person, that we honor their differences, we learn to speak their language which is never just like ours, and even change when the relationship calls us into that change. Being in relationship with Jesus, like being in any relationship, takes work, effort, conversion, and forgiveness.
Ultimately, the loving relationship that Christ calls us into will change us. As we strive to love others with the same merciful, inclusive, and forgiving love with which Jesus loves us, we begin to see others and ourselves less through filters of judgment and exclusion and more with the wide view of love. True relationships invite us to love both ourselves and others, even when we’re just not so sure about how exactly to do either.
And the cool thing about dating Jesus is that he stands with me, as he urges me toward the courage to jump into love. He might just start a parable marathon, and I’ll jump simply to get away from an endless stream of holy analogies.
I never know what unexpected relationship abides quietly closer to the edge, waiting for me on my journey. I change and grow with each encounter and relationship, however long or brief, even when it’s over lunch on Christmas Eve.