Christmas 1 – Sunday, December 31, 2017

December 31, 2017  

Luke 2:22-40

There’s a lot packed into this story from Luke. I’m not going to distract or confuse you by listing off all the different themes there are—I want to focus on one. I want to focus on the idea or concept of ritual. Specifically ritual as it relates to the things Joseph and Mary are doing in the reading, but also ritual as it relates to our lives, now.

Mary and Joseph tend to three rituals in this story, all three from the Hebrew tradition. They are the ritual of circumcision, the ritual of the redemption of the firstborn, and the ritual of the purification of the mother.

I could tell you a funny story about me, my middle school Sunday School teacher and the topic of circumcision, but I won’t. Let’s just say I didn’t know what it was and, when I asked, she told me! Let’s also say I was mortified and horrified at the same time… as only a middle school girl can be when discussing such a topic. We’ll leave it at that.

The Hebrew ritual of purification of a mother after giving birth is interesting.

“After the birth of a male child, the mother was ceremonial unclean for seven days and underwent purification for 33 days” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, p. 69). Interestingly, if a female child was born purification took 66 days… (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 69). Purification ended with the sacrifice of an animal in the Temple. If the family was poor, doves or pigeons could be sacrificed instead of the regular sacrifice of a lamb (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 69).

The redemption of the firstborn is the most important ritual Joseph and Mary engaged in. According to Jewish Law, “As a reminder of the exodus, the firstborn child was consecrated to the Lord” (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 69). If we are talking about animals… oxen, sheep, lambs, etc. the first born was slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice at the temple. In some pagan religions, firstborn humans were dealt with the same way. Not so for the Hebrew people. Rather than actually slaughter the firstborn human child, the Hebrews had the first born redeemed at the Temple. This meant the first born was taken to the Temple, dedicated, and then the family paid five shekels of silver to buy the first born back (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 69).

All three of these rituals were just elements of a religious life full of rituals. The Hebrew people believed “all of life” (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 74) was to the glory and praise of God. All of life, from the moment they rose in the morning to the moment they went to bed at night. There were (and are, for devout Jews) prayers for almost every occasion. There were (and are) certain words said, actions taken.

For Christians, some traditions involve ritual more than others. As Protestants, most specifically as Lutherans, ritual hasn’t been that important. In fact, the Reformation took Protestants down a path leading away from ritual rather than toward it.

As a child, other than the rituals of worship we engaged in Sunday after Sunday, there was only one religious ritual my family observed. We prayed at every meal. My parents still pray at every meal. If you are at their house eating with them, you will pray, too. And they always said (always SAY) the same prayer, we often call it “Wendy’s prayer” because my father Wendell wrote it. We also call it “the family prayer.” When you marry into the family (or simply spend a lot of time with my parents) you LEARN the family prayer. Period.

Ritual, when engaged properly, involves mystery. Religious rituals “recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday…” (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 74). Luther encouraged Christians to rise everyday remembering their baptisms. When you shower or bathe or wash your hands you might remind yourself: I am a baptized child of God. The reminder means you begin the day forgiven, your slate clean, a much loved child of a graceful God. The mystery of God’s love deepens when we remind ourselves every day that God gives us new life.

Ritual, when engaged properly, involves mystery. As residents of the 21st century, how can we “recover the mystery of life and the transcendence of everyday experience”? (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 74).

What can you do?

If you live alone, how might you bring God into your everyday life? Do you pray before eating a meal? Do you do or can you do a daily devotion? Can you take a few minutes before bed, light a candle and pray? (Always remembering to blow it out…)

If you live with a spouse or family, do you or can you bring God into your everyday life? Do you or can you pray before whatever meals you might share? Do you or can you do a daily or weekly devotion as a family or couple? Do you or can you take a few minutes at some point in the day to light a candle and pray silently or aloud? (Always remembering to blow it out…)

Now that we’ve got the readings back in the bulletin and we have the prayers included, you can take your bulletin home and use it to create rituals. Read the scripture readings together. Say the prayers to yourself or as a family. Take verse 10 from our first reading and turn it into a tool for conversation:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God”

Ask yourself or yourselves, what has this day given me I/we can rejoice in? If you have no answer, you have found reason to pray…

Whatever rituals you might already engage in or create for yourself or your family, remember, rituals ought not be restrictive. They are an opportunity to “celebrate the goodness and mystery of life” (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 75).

There is a saying attributed to Jesus from The Apocryphal New Testament:

Where-so-ever there are (two, they are not without) God: and where there is one alone I say I am with him [or her]. Lift the stone and there shalt thou find me: cleave the wood and I am there. (As quoted in TNIB, vol. 9, p. 74).

Jesus was meaning to say that, in all we do, in all we say, in all that we are, in every day… Jesus is with us.

Let’s honor the mystery of Christ’s presence.

Amen.