The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
“Now every year, his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents didn’t know it.”
They grow-up so fast, don’t they?
Many of you have Christmas traditions and they are much like the tradition of Jesus family traveling in this story today. They help us mark the passing of time, they are filled with song, and they remind us how short life is and how important it is to love those around us. Christmas stands out among the holidays, for Christians and for secular celebrants alike, because its music, its colors, its symbols remind us of our loved ones, brings us back to our childhoods, and connects us with milestones in life more than any other holiday—for better and for worse.
Today, since we are focused on song and tradition of Christmas singing, in lieu of a long sermon, I am simply going to offer a simple reflection on this idea: There is a great importance to traditions like Christmas Carols and songs across different cultures as a way to take care of each other and to create milestones in life that remind us to slow down and to cherish our loved ones. Christmas music, like what we are singing today from around the world, is a deep connection to a sense of time and place.
These songs, the hymns of Christmas, serve as important reminders about life, love, and family—because, friends, life is so short!
Just a couple of days ago, after all, Jesus was born in a manger in Jerusalem. Just a couple of days ago the angels sang. Just a couple of days ago the Shepherds left their sheep unattended in the fields and went to worship Jesus. Christmas… Christmas Eve, Santa, the commotion, the presents, the tree, the lights, the family visiting. It all feels like it was just yesterday, doesn’t it!?
Today’s Scripture passage comes only verses after the Christmas Story, and yet time has accelerated to the point where Jesus has already started to teach, he has already claimed a sense of independence escaping from his parents, and as Scripture says, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Jesus is growing-up, and we can almost feel the subtext of the anxiety, the hope, the pride, and the many mixed emotions his parents must have had. How many of you are parents and relate to this? Our passage today is, in many ways, one of the human moments in the Jesus story—it is a moment when the Baby starts to turn into the man. It is the moment when all of Mary and Joseph’s joy starts to turn into fear, alarm, and change—fear for the future.
The irony or foreshadowing here is that Jesus gets lost teaching in the temple as a 12-year-old in Jerusalem—the very city and place where he will eventually be put to death for doing the very same thing as an adult.
Parenting, in my case gay uncling, or even watching your parents get older year after year… frailer perhaps… is part of life, but it is scary. Most of all, it means that we need to hold onto the sacred moments and the milestones in life like Christmas memories.
Christmas is different from Halloween, Easter, 4th of July, or even birthdays because it comes so close to the new year and is highly ritualized both by society and the church. Christmas, for better or worse, is how we measure our year and our memories of our loved ones. It is also how we measure our own adulting success. Are my cookies anything like grandma’s? Is my tree as beautiful as the one I remember growing-up?
Watching your kids open their Christmas presents, decorating your first tree with your spouse after getting married, baking cookies with grandma, food, song, culture, family time around the fire are all milestones to help us know the distances traveled in life.
There is a great scene in the classical musical Fiddler on the Roof when one of the daughters is getting married and the parents sit and sing softly to themselves a very deep song. The lyrics go like this:
Is this the little girl I carried,
Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older,
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty,
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn't it yesterday when they were small?
Sunrise, sunset (x2),
Swiftly flow the days.
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers,
Blossoming even as we gaze.
Sunrise, sunset (x2),
Swiftly fly the years,
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears.
Growing-up, growing old, growing wise, growing tall (in my case short), growing in faith, growing in hope, growing in love… all of the ways in which we grow can be measured from Christmas to Christmas. Whether we love this holiday or resist it, for all of us, Christmas is a time of making, maintaining, and renewing memories.
The hymns we sing today, some familiar to us and others new, are for different cultures and people their memory-makers and milestone reminders.
By singing together, like the people did at the Passover Festivals in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time from our story today, we create milestones that maintain our memories and help us to cherish our loves ones even more and even better.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.