Many of us, I assume, have managed to watch at least part of the movie National Lampoonâ€™s A Christmas Vacation on television. There was a day-long marathon showing of the movie this week. Itâ€™s an absurd romp through the chaos of the holidays that has become, for many families, mandatory holiday viewing right up there with White Christmas and Itâ€™s A Wonderful Life.
The movie chronicles the madness that ensues for one suburban Chicago family as their relatives descend upon them. It a hysterical film and I encourage you to take some time and watch it one afternoon when no one is looking. Leave your brain somewhere else and enjoy the movie.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when the brother-in-law (played by Randy Quaid), who has arrived with his family quite unannounced, is standing out front of the house on the street in his short bathrobe and smoking a cigar one morning as he empties out the waste from his RV into the storm drain. A neighbor walks out, catches a wiff of the stench, looks around and, scandalized, runs back into his house his morning run postponed until another day.
Our hero, Clark Griswold (played by Chevy Chase), stands staring out of his window totally helpless to stop his brother-in-lawâ€¦And as I watch this scene I am overcome with the absurdity of it all and laughingly I simply want to ask the frustrated question: â€œWho is running this show?â€ Itâ€™s a three-ring circus of a family holiday and no one is in control. What could possibly happen next?
It is with this sense of panic and amused helplessness that I meet this morningâ€™s Gospel passage. We have a family on a vacation of sorts. Itâ€™s a big deal for our parents, Joseph and Mary. They are going to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations with their extended family. Itâ€™s that family trip they make every year. They are bringing Jesus with them. Heâ€™s twelve and beginning to function as an adult. Everything goes great until the return trip. Then Jesus disappears and people are panicked. They venture back to the Temple and find Jesus with the teachers listening and learning and talking about scripture. Heâ€™s perfectly fine.
Welcome to the joys of approaching adulthood with the adolescent Son of God.
Jesus, like many adolescents, gives an implausible response to his parentsâ€™ entreaty and tries to make them feel a little stupid. Okay, maybe thatâ€™s not what Luke intended in his Gospel, but I canâ€™t help but hear the familiar tone. And his parents are floored. Who wouldnâ€™t be? Yet, once again their strange son surprises them. Once again they are reminded that there is little control involved in raising the Messiah. Itâ€™s maddening, terrifying, and (perhaps after the fact and the tempers have cooled) a little funny.
Who is running this show?
Our ability to control the outcome of almost any situation in life is minimal. All we can do is control our responsesâ€¦make our own decisions. And thatâ€™s hard enough. But how often do we walk into a situation convinced that we know what the result will be, that we can control the behavior of other people? We scrape and climb, we dictate and micromanage, we wheel and deal, as if any of this has any bearing on anything at all. Itâ€™s a common human assumption.
We do this on a personal level.
We do this on a communal level.
Sometimes we even do this on a national level. Much of our nationâ€™s political rhetoric is not so much about inspiring or convincing, but is based upon controlling the outcome. We are the so-called lone super power. We speak of our nation as writing the history of the world often behaving as if our agenda should be the worldâ€™s agenda. We struggle to understand our identity as part of a community of nations.
So, we proclaim for ourselves individually and collectively the power to change the world. We may do this in our professional lives. We may do it in our personal lives.
And yet this story this morning reminds me of just how little we do control, how little we can predict. The Christmas story has great sentimental value for many of us. And it should. But the principal actors in this story are so passive compared to our usual heroes.
They follow. They listen. They ponder. They arenâ€™t misunderstood renegades expressing their radical sense of individuality and uniqueness.
This morning we are told that Mary â€œtreasures this thing in her heart.â€ For me there are echoes of when Mary ponders things in her heart. Do you remember this about her? The angel visits and gives her some strange news and she ponders it in her heart. There are glad tidings and she ponders them in her heart. Then she goes about her life. She lives as a wife and a mother, a cousin, and as a member of society. She allows for amazement to come and then she holds on it to see what will happen next. She allows for the story to unfold in its own time. She does not attempt to control it but instead shows an unfamiliar kind of wisdom and waits to see what God is up to and participates in it.
This is the wisdom of a woman who embraces the truth of an incarnated God. Immanuel. She knows, believes, and has faith (though sometimes with difficulty) that God is with us here and now at work in the world. God, who is the Living Word, is the author of history. We can choose to participate or not. But it is God at work that we must be ready forâ€¦even when that disrupts our own plans.
How does she do this? I donâ€™t know that thereâ€™s a trick to it. I donâ€™t even think that Mary was particularly unique in any way other than this innate sense of knowing when to wait. Perhaps she is like her sonâ€¦or her son is like her and we can see something of her in his adolescent response. What may sound like cheek is really something much more profound. It may be a mirror of what Mary has always told Jesus.
â€œWhy were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my fathers house?â€ He goes where he can ponder, listen, and learn. Can it be that Jesusâ€™ understanding of who he is, the Child of God, the Son of Mary, guides him through uncertainty?
Thereâ€™s no tidy bow on our story this morning. We donâ€™t hear about a moral to the story. Luke does not end it with â€œAnd so kids, always rememberâ€¦â€ As far as we know Jesus is not grounded for a month. What we do see, however, is that Jesus understood himself in relationship to God. He would grow in this way, mature or â€œincrease in wisdomâ€ (perhaps learn not to scare Mary and Joseph so badly again), and increase in favor in all his relationshipsâ€¦with God and with his community.
Thomas Merton said, â€œThe simplest and most effective way to sanctity [holiness] is to disappear into the background of ordinary everyday routine.â€
"There is only one thing for anybody to become in life.
Thereâ€™s no point in becoming spiritual â€“ the whole thing is a waste of time.
What you came here for is to become yourself, to discover your complete identity to be you. But the catch is that of course our full identityâ€¦ as Christians is Christ.
It is Christ in each of usâ€¦ Iâ€™ve got to become me in such a way that I am the Christ that can only be the Christ in me. There is a [Thomas Merton] Christ that must be brought into existence and hasnâ€™t matured yet. It has a long way to go." (source)
This for me is the nugget of gold from both passages this morning. Samuel and Hanna, Jesus and Maryâ€¦they all have a strong and growing sense of their identity in God. This is what guides them. This is how they navigate the world and their relationships. This is the thing that they all cultivate in order to be better people. This is why Mary ponders and Jesus will return to the Temple and synagogue and the mountain top again and again and again. He too knows that he must ponder things in his heart. His mother taught him well.
So, he always stops and asks, â€œWho is running this show?â€
Let us pray:
you wonderfully created
and yet more wonderfully restored
the dignity of human nature;
grant that we may share the divine life
of the one who came to share our humanity,
Jesus Christ, our Saviour. Amen.