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Just what is this period, this interregnum, between Christmas and Epiphany? Is there a focus biblically? Lectionaries often opt for the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. It’s technically too early for the Magi or the baptism of Jesus. And Rosh Hashanah notwithstanding, there is not a lot of specific biblical material on what’s next for most people in what remains of the holiday season; viz., New Year’s Eve and Day. It’s sort of a time of “OK, Christmas is over. It was fun. We got through it. We survived. Now what?”
This year there is only one Sunday after Christmas (often there are two depending on the day of the week when Christmas falls) and before Epiphany on January 6. There are a couple other things that come up like Boxing Day and Kwanzaa. But otherwise and other than putting away presents and tidying up the house, a focus just now is hard to find.
Maybe we can find a focus, though, if we pay attention to three little words in Luke 2—words we usually brush past en route to other things. As I may have shared here before, one thing I encourage preaching students to do is to get into the habit of reading their preaching passage very slowly—super slowly—and aloud. Especially with familiar Scripture passages—and, hello? What is more familiar than Luke 2?—it is vital to break the reading patterns we have heard for ages to see what we may have been missing all along. Read each word slowly and aloud, I tell students, and see what pops out at you.
This worked for me years ago when preparing a post-Christmas sermon on the latter part of the Luke 2 narrative. Whether readings from the pulpit, in Sunday school Christmas pageants, devotions at the dinner table, or even The Charlie Brown Christmas Special for goodness sake we have learned patterns of emphasis in Luke 2. And on this line, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had seen and heard, which was just as it had been told to them.” We instinctively “know” that the words to punch here are “glorifying and praising” and so we rush over the first thee words of the verse to get to that part.
But when I read it slowly and so did a full stop after just “the shepherds returned,” something new leapt out at me. Yes, that’s right: they returned. They went back. To what? To where we were told earlier they had been when the angels appeared: the fields. That for them was home. The fields. Tattered tents. Sleeping mats that had been better days. Sheep. Cooking over open fires whatever meager food they had available on any given day.
The fields. Most people then did not want to live there and probably pitied those who did. Shepherds were not highly regarded in the day. Might we recover a sense for “the fields” if we translated it to something like they returned to “under the highway overpass” or “the city park”?
Yes, this is a reminder of the lowly status of the shepherds, as Jen Holmes Curran nicely reminded us in yesterday’s post here on the Reformed Journal. But here I want to take a slightly different angle on it and just zero in on the idea that they “returned” to where they had been before.
We all do this, of course. Every year. Christmas comes. We journey in heart and mind to Bethlehem and see the child in the manger. We wonder anew at the incarnation. We sing the carols. We light the candles. And then we return. We return to . . . work, school, the shop, the office. We return home where all the challenges that were present when Advent began—a loved one’s dementia, the lack of a meaningful job, a child struggling with addiction—are still there waiting for us when we return back from the stable.
But also this year as Christmas 2022 recedes in life’s rearview mirror, how do we return? How did the shepherds go back home, such as it was? Well, changed. Transformed, a little or a lot. You cannot come to the cradle of all hope and not have your own sense of hope thicken up at least a little. As Tish Harrison Warren wrote in a lovely New York Times piece on Christmas Day, Christmas never solves everything for us. If anything, it may even sharpen our hunger and our longing for something more than we have most days. Even so, when we return back whence we came after Christmas is over, we are changed.
We’ve perhaps been touched anew by the fierce mystery of divine love, by that light that shines in the darkness and cannot be put out.
The shepherds returned. Even short of the “glorifying and praising God” part, there is a whole lot of truth, a meaningful image, and a ray of hope in just those three words. And so just maybe during this in-between time those three words are enough.
Let me affirm this, that these three words are enough, and weighty. As well as the slow reading of these too-familiar texts out loud (chant them, even). But may I demur and softly disagree that there is nothing in the calendar “between”? There used to be. The Feast of the Circumcision. (On January 1, and January 1 was not always New Years Day.) The Feast of the Circumcision used even to be required in our Church Orders as a day for public worship! I have not traced the history of its desuetude but I suspect it’s connected with modern anti-semitism. The Jewishness of Jesus was much an embarrassment to the church, and mere circumcision was often judged a mortal sin. The Roman Church even changed the observance to “The Holy Name.” Our Lord would have been automatically a criminal, at best tolerated, in much of Christendom for many centuries.
The title led me astray, into a far country, thinking of the (non-liturgical) season of returns. There were lots of them going on at Target yesterday.
It’s often difficult to take those holy moments with us into our ordinary days.
Thanks, Scott. You are right about reading familiar texts which can become “too familiar.”
I also thought about students who will soon return to school. The shepherds glorified and
praised the Lord, and this worship must have included wonder and awe: wondering about
angels in the sky and the baby in the manger; how God is present in the majesty and the mystery.
All of us could use a regular dose of wonder and awe in the middle of our returning.
Returning to the ordinary and even the burdensome humdrum is certainly a post-Christmas rite that most of us have experienced. Thanks for showing us that the first Christmas shows the way to do this. I had not noticed that before. I’ve found that something that works even better than “read the passage super slowly and aloud” — is to memorize the passage and then recite it aloud, without notes. If I had done that for Luke 2, “the shepherds returned” would undoubtedly have been a sticking point obscured by the more exciting verbs. No longer!