First Congregational Church
December 20, 2020
4th Sunday in Advent
Luke 1:26 – 2:7
“Love Can Look So Strange”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
What’s Santa’s favorite snack food? Crisp Pringles. What do you call a scary looking reindeer? A cariboo. Why don’t crabs celebrate Christmas? Because they’re shell-fish. Why do Christmas trees like the past so much? Because the present’s beneath them.
Okay, so that last joke is rather lame, but it’s about Christmas trees, so it stretches into this 2020 Advent Year of the Tree theme we’ve been using. We sent out Advent devotional booklets this year - to kids and adults - that feature the Jesse tree - or Jesus’ family tree - or our whole family tree - however you want to look at it.
Each day there is a different reading that relates to the history of God’s people - of Jesus’ family tree as it is laid out in the Old Testament and the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. In an added layer to this enrichment of heart and mind and soul, today we celebrate the Advent candle of Love - knowing full well that this is not a romantic love, but the larger, most encompassing love we call agape. It is a love - of breadth and depth that sometimes requires a little more thought and attention. So we come to this morning’s scripture passage from Luke 1, beginning with verse 26.
Luke 1:26 – 2:7
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Thank you, Jeanne. This is a strange choice of verses, primarily because it starts out in one direction, but at the change of chapter, takes a completely different path. But what joins the two is the reference of Joseph being a descendant of, belonging to the house and line of David.
I would venture a guess that even the most ardent genealogists can get a little glassy-eyed when reading through the list of names - begats and “son of”s and I won’t even start on the few references to women in Jesus’ family tree. So here’s the Haag Notes version.
Including Adam and King David, the Bible counts 34 connected - related - names between Adam and King David. Between King David and Mary, there are 26 directly related names and between King David and Joseph, even though Joseph didn’t have any DNA involvement, there are 41 directly related names to Jesus - making Jesus doubly related to David - through David’s sons Solomon and Nathan. We don’t often think about family trees in terms of a diagram or picture, as being one of love, but it is a background to include in the envisioning.
We don’t often think about Christmas trees as being pictures of love, but as a representative of all trees, especially those that point upward, they are part of the landscape of love that God gave all of us - from the creation of the world - through love - to the empty wooden cross - through love. Sometimes, love can look so very strange.
As Congregationalists, I don’t know that very many of us realize that our beginnings in this country were not as pastorale as painters would like us to believe. In fact, our Pilgrim forebears didn’t abide by the frivolity and pagan mockery of celebrating Christmas. So no cross in the meeting house, no banners, no Christmas tree or greens in early Pilgrim churches. Just the elevated pulpit to highlight the inspired and educated preaching of God’s word.
It took a while, but eventually the Pennsylvania Germans said foey on that and went on to bring Christmas trees into their homes and I don’t know who brought them into churches, despite the fact that bringing greens in to decorate goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, early Romans and ancient Celts. From abstention of decorating to the embracement of decorating - these, too, are very strange ways of showing our love for God.
There was a story that was printed in the Traverse magazine in December of 1998 that told the remembrance of another strange display of love - in a Christmas pilgrimage from Glen Haven to Traverse City, which takes about 40 minutes in most any car today.
“We didn’t call it a pilgrimage then,” wrote Margaret Thompson Day Travis. "To us it was a matter of course like Christmas itself: the whole family, seven strong, would step out of our everyday frontier life and travel 40 winter miles for a two-day celebration of hotel luxury and glorious, prodigal shopping.
Father was one of the early day lumbermen, whose business involved a great deal of shipping by water, and we lived in the tiny hamlet of Glen Haven, which was clustered around his docks on Lake Michigan. The Christmas shopping trip was our annual taste of the fleshpots.
It was mid-December and the snow was already deep in the north country. The journey began with an eight-mile sleigh ride to the nearest railroad at Empire. Father looked magnificent in a burly raccoon coat; Mother was splendid in unaccustomed sealskin and ostrich plumes; and of course, we children were under fur skin robes and swathed in mounds of coats, veils and muffs.
As we sped across the snow between the black and white winter hardwoods, our nerve ends literally vibrated with the sweetness of the Russian harness chimes. It was almost possible for us children to visualize that many-clappered music, as in the narrow canyons of plowed-out logging roads it rang out its imperious announcement of our arrival. The whole forest seemed to throb with a silver ecstasy.
At the railroad village, we caught a combination passenger-baggage-smoking car that had been hitched to the end of a log train. Logging railroads laced the country at that time. One rode them gratefully, perfectly willing to angle 30 or so miles in order to achieve what would have been 12 as the crow flies. We changed at various little junctions in the woods, moving from one coach caboose to another—all equally gritty with coal dust, pitted from caulked boots, dirty with tobacco juice, and nauseating from the smell of coal gas.
But past these grimy windows slid magic forests, and we children watched, enchanted by the miles of evergreens knee-deep, draped and garlanded in snow—a million Christmas trees whispering to us with a million voices, whispering to us of Christmas delights. We found ourselves wrapped in Christmas as in a cloud.
Eventually, the logging railroads merged with the main line. We waited for three interminable hours at a dingy little station for the big train that would sweep us into Traverse City. The early winter darkness fell while we waited for the train’s incandescent eye as it rushed down on us out of the night.
This train was clean, smooth-riding, and well lit. In it, mother hooked furs, her fingers expertly working the difficult clasps of the period. Very quickly she straightened curls and retouched faces, while father, his rustic raccoon coat replaced by a well-tailored overcoat and visored sealskin pillbox, arranged for “carriages” with the Traverse City transfer. Father was inordinately proud of his lively brood. Nothing tickled him more than the fact it took two carriages to transport us.
The carriages—closed hacks on runners—were waiting under the station lights in Traverse City to gather us into their musty dark interiors. Slowly we glided across the viaduct into the shopping district. Here it burst upon us at last—a fairyland of lighted plate-glass windows, festooned with looped ropes of holly and filled with candy canes, life-sized dolls, mechanical trains and 10-foot toboggans. The jewelers’ windows winked with diamonds and heavy yellow bracelets rich on purple satin; deep red, yellow and purple fruit glowed in the window of an Italian fruit store and great boxes of loose mistletoe and holly stood outside on the sidewalk. Throngs of people hurried about on mysterious errands, their sleighs disappearing knowingly around corners while Salvation Army lasses rang bells beside kettles under street lamps!
Once at the hotel, there was the business of paying cab drivers, directing porters and marshaling us children en masse into the plushly mirrored parlors which smelled so excitingly worldly. There were smiling greetings from the proprietor and his wife, who were friends of Father and Mother. After miles of labyrinthine hallways leading to walnut, marble and red-plush bedrooms, we hastily freshened up and hurried down to the big dining room with its gliding, black-uniformed waitresses. Then came the supreme moment of ordering our own suppers from a printed menu. There were radishes with the soup, and crisp, green parsley garnishing the meat, although snow lay deep outside the windows—could luxury go further?
Mother’s methods with us were mass-production. Her first move the morning after we arrived was to run the whole flock of us through the hotel barbershop. Then she made group appointments for us with the dentist and the photographer. These necessities attended to, she turned us loose, each with a shopping list and the money we had been accumulating since July.
My older sisters, Alice and Eva, very prim and dignified, slipped away together quickly lest a younger one tag along with them. My brother David and I teamed up. That left mother with only baby Estelle to take with her while she shopped. In addition to gifts for the six of us, her list also included gifts for her family scattered all over Canada, Father’s family in Upstate New York, and gifts for the maid at home and for sundry employees’ families. We used to stumble upon her wherever we went, giving us a feeling of coziness in this strange vastness. She would be standing intently before a counter, or crossing the street half a block ahead of us, or sailing down the thickly carpeted hotel corridor toward us when we would return to unload parcels. How her hazel eyes and her swinging diamond earrings sparkled against the soft darkness of her fur collar! How deliciously she rustled, how regally her village-made broadcloth skirt swept back when she walked! No world-famed duchess could ever be half so chic.
Father had business at the bank, at the foundry, at the hardware store and harness shops. We saw him in the hotel at mealtimes, affable but elusive, and lost him immediately afterward to his concerns while we plunged back into the fairyland musical carnival atmosphere of the shopping district.
At night I awoke in the big bed and lay looking out through the opening between the window and the sill at the lights that pierced the city night, hearing the soft hotel stirrings going on all about me and the distant train whistles. The unfamiliar smell of coal smoke faintly nauseated me and I lay there vaguely disturbed by what seemed to my 10-year-old mind a massive violation of the night, nostalgic for the limitless star-hung darkness of my experience—the reassuring pine fragrance coupled with the rhythmic pulse of Lake Michigan.
But the two days were a dream of delight. When David and I had bought all of the presents on our lists, we spent our time savoring city life. We went to all of the crepe paper–garlanded moving picture “palaces” and criticized them expertly. We tried all of the ice cream parlors and Kandy Kitchens. We bought exotic fruit and armfuls of holly and mistletoe. We began to see ourselves as pampered sophisticates, spending money, amusing only ourselves, eating delicious meals, and pressing buttons if we wanted anything.
On the third morning, all of this magnificence went into reverse. The mounting excitement of our arrival ran the other way. The hacks took us in daylight from hotel to train. The trains to which we changed grew progressively dingier. When we got off the last one, our waiting three-seated open sleigh looked cold and crude. The mounds of coats were much more uncomfortable when donned in a cold station. Logging roads and snowy fields were dreary and commonplace after the splendor we had known. But when the sleigh dipped into the snowy forest tunnels and the whole visible world rang with the silver clamor of the bells, our spirits stirred again. That music escaping into the forest trailed a Lorelei song back over its shoulder—a song that was at once a promise and a challenge.
“Tomorrow,” David and I told each other, “we will go out into the woods—way back in the woods and find a Christmas tree. We’ll stay all day till we find a beautiful one, the most beautiful one we have ever had.”
If there is a longing at Christmas, I think it is connected to the sense of love that surrounded us as children, that morphes into a sort of nostalgia. I wonder, as we grow up, wiser, and mature, if we think that we outgrow that sense of love, wrapping us up like a blanket at a really cold football game or the enveloping smell of freshly mown grass on a really hot day in the summer time. Mayhap it be that that is what makes Christmas - and the Advent preparation time of it - so dear to the heart - the remembrances of those times of love that perhaps looked a little strange.
The good thing is that we don’t have to have a perfect understanding of what this preparation time means. It is simply good to think more about it, pray more about it, and hold it gently - as strange as love may look. So we pray.
Holy and Ever-lasting to Ever-lasting God, thank you for being the parent who created us - in love - way back at the beginning of time. Thank you for loving us - way into the future of eternal life. It is a strange life and love that you give us - in a child - who is still so woven into the fabric of our lives. Enable us to settle more into that love this coming week, that we might look back on this year, season and Christmas with deeper appreciation for all the ways you enable us to see and embrace your love. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.