Have you ever wondered what other people are doing during a worship service? I mean, you can see what they’re doing with their bodies, but have you ever wondered what is going on inside their heads? Before we get carried too far down this stream we should admit that there is a philosophical problem with the question. Just like it is probably impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God, it’s also probably impossible to prove that there is anything going on in someone else’s head, anything significant that is. But even if you can’t prove it, do you wonder what they’re doing? Why are they there? Are they there? Their body is present, but is their head and heart? Of course we can ask the same question of ourselves. What is it that we are doing in worship?
There just about as many ways to answer that question as there are people at a worship service. Any one of us participates for a whole host of interconnected reasons, so we might be doing quite a number of things (keeping our parents happy, easing our conscience, avoiding loneliness or whatever). Let me suggest one thing though that we are all doing: we are enacting a liturgy. Not everyone is comfortable with the word ‘liturgy’ but I think it’s a helpful word. It’s a word often misunderstood, but one that can help us appreciate some of the dynamics in Luke 2:41-52 and Colossians 3:12-17.
So let’s think just a bit about liturgy. For ancient Greeks a liturgy was the offering that wealthy citizens made to fund public events. These events would have been a blend of religion and politics, sometimes even entertainment. The word ‘liturgy’ itself comes from two Greek words: laos, think ‘laity’ or ‘people’, and ergon, think ‘work’. The meaning of the word shifts a bit when we begin to talk about Christian worship. In its classic Christian sense liturgy is simply the people’s work. But for our purposes let’s think of liturgy as something we participate in that is repetitive, habitual and that enables us to connect with something greater than ourselves. With this definition I’m drawing on a bit of an intellectual trend in Christian theology.
When we think of liturgy we often think of weekly worship, but each of our lives are made up of many more varied liturgies. Think of the ways we prepare our bodies before we go to work or school: same thing every day, needed or not. It’s highly ritualized. It’s our way of readying ourselves to connect with others. Or think of how your school day begins and ends. It’s regular and habitual. Maybe you sing “Oh Canada” or recite a pledge. Things like that are designed to form students aren’t they? Things like that are designed to cultivate certain loves.
Or think of how a hockey game unfolds: how the players make their way onto the ice, the national anthem, and of how the game ends. The players might be all elbows on the boards during the game but at the end they congratulate their opponents with a ritualized touch that says more than words. It’s a formative habit.
Or think of how concerts proceed. There are some in which the audience is silent, some in which the audience is quite loud. In either case there is a form and structure to the interaction that doesn’t need to be stated, there is a highly ritualized back and forth between audience and musicians. In some concerts the performers even condescend to cross the cultic boundary of celebrity and come among the people. The masses are enraptured; they have been touched by the gods.
Liturgy, practice and habit are related. Think of baseball, how a second baseman practices turning a double play. His practice is a liturgy itself, same thing over and over and over. When it comes time to perform in a game he does so freely without thinking. The same is true of expert musicians. Their habits, their liturgy of practice connects them with the music and frees them to express it. They couldn’t do so if they had to think about reading each note and determine how to play it. Liturgies free our bodies to act without the burden of thought. We don’t have a choice about whether we are or are not liturgical people. If we are people we are liturgical.
Here then is the key: liturgies shape the way we are in the world. They shape our view of things, they shape our loves and therefore they shape us.
Luke 2:42-52, the gospel text for Dec. 27, opens on a liturgical note: “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.” As an adult Jesus had some strong words for the leaders of some cultural and religious institutions, but his faith was clearly nurtured by traditional Jewish liturgies of prayer, celebration and study. He participated in the regular life of the temple and the synagogue. Thus when he was twelve he went up “as usual.” I worry sometimes that pursuing independent spirituality, avoiding ‘organized religion’, is little different than reducing faith to shopping. I know that isn’t entirely fair. But ‘disorganized’ faith or do-it-yourself faith can quickly become me-ism. And that religion has its own liturgy, its own temples and its own priests.
With all this before us let’s turn our attention more directly to this story from Jesus’ childhood. I must say, I found it a bit surprising that the lectionary takes us right after Christmas to this episode that occurs when Jesus is twelve. It seems as though we haven’t gotten to the bit about the magi and now we’re talking about the twelve year old Jesus. Some parents tell me, though, that this is basically how it goes: you have a baby, and before you know you have a twelve-year-old and then, before you’ve gotten used to that, you send the kid out the door, to university, a job in another city, the navy or whatever. Then, of course, they come back home and live in your basement for another ten years. You have time to catch up then, too much time . . . but that’s just what I hear.
So, just to refresh your minds: Mary has this baby, life becomes a blur, at least as Luke tells the story. There are other accounts of Jesus’s youth, accounts the early church judged not to be trustworthy. In Luke’s telling, Mary and Joseph take young Jesus, as a part of their liturgical year, to Jerusalem. There he gets lost. Maybe more accurately, he runs away. Now here’s where the story gets a little weird. Augustine says that the Bible is weird sometimes just to keep us engaged. Mary and Joseph look for Jesus for three days and then find him in the temple hanging out with the teachers. How did that work? Did he sleep there? Did some teacher say, “Hey kid, why don’t you come to my house?” Did it not occur to any of them that Jesus’ parents might be worried? It’s all a bit odd, but it’s a good reminder that reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. The teachers were quite impressed with Jesus. He showed an impressive grasp of the Torah.
So anyway, run-away Jesus if finally located by his parental authorities, and Mary says, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Today a parent might say, “What they hell were you thinking?” And then they would be embarrassed later as they had to explain to grandma why the kid said “hell” so much
Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary were “astonished.” It’s good to hear this story at a time of year when we sing the farfetched carol “Away in a Manger.” Many people have pointed out the silly lyrics of that carol. Let me pile on: “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” When the little lord Jesus runs away on the trip to the temple he certainly makes some people cry.
That’s good realism, but it is his response that I want us to reflect on this morning. Jesus says to his parents: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” other translations say, “about my father’s business.” This is a fascinating and important moment. I quite like how the ethicist and theologian Oliver O’Donovan puts it: “We are shown the moment of awakening, when a young and unformed boy, knowing himself called like Samuel, responds directly, throwing every expectation of a devout family into confusion and disarray (p. 35).”
It was the commitment of his parents that had brought Jesus to Jerusalem. They had invested themselves into his formation. Family liturgies matter. There are parents who orient their lives around some alternative liturgy and then seem amazed, flabbergasted, flummoxed when their children walk away from faith. This is not the case in this story. Joseph and Mary shaped their family’s life such that there was no way the child could mistake what was important. They wanted him to see the world in a way that they thought was healthy and true, so they built repetitive patterns into their family’s life. But even for them there was a moment when the youngster took ownership and claimed responsibility for who he was becoming: “I must be in my Father’s house.” The question that this should stir in each of us, is what must we be doing? In what part of our life do we feel moved and compelled? What awakens us as individual people with the ability to affect who we become?
The temptation, for adults and for youth, is to not astonish our parents. The temptation is to trundle along with everyone else, never making a deliberate, purposeful decision. The temptation is to never think about what our lives are for, to never wonder what we must be doing. The temptation is to go through our lives without imperatives.
At this stage in Jesus’ life there is no clear sense that he fully understands what his calling will be about. But everything is put in order by his decision to be about God’s business. The rest would all come in due course. Luke uses Jesus’ reference to his Father to establish a rhetorical link to Gabriel’s announcement to Mary in the first chapter of his gospel. There the angel speaks of God’s plan, and in the story of Jesus running away he begins to name his relationship to the Father. He begins to find his place in the divine workings voiced by the angel.
There certainly are ways to astonish ones parents through foolishness and the repetition of dumb decisions. But that is not so much astonishment as it is disappointment. To astonish one’s parents by claiming agency, by making big-picture decisions is a mark of maturity.
There is in our culture a general ignorance of maturity. To state the obvious, we are fixated on youthfulness. Think of the many conversations you have had with the ex-high school or college athlete, where there are no new stories, only old tales of touchdowns and blazing fast downhills repeated again and again. Or think of the conversation with the person obsessed with their loss of a youthful appearance. They tell tales too, tales of youthful vigor, taut skin and glossy hair.
More than one person has pointed out that our fixation with youth actually puts young people in a bit of a bind. Adults pine for their youth and call them the “best days of their life” but they seem to forget how difficult they were. What then is the young person to think? Life doesn’t get any better than this—acne, exams, unreliable friends, constant social jostling, parental intrusions?
Why is it that we laud the person who is “young at heart”? Why do we speak in glowing terms about the person who refuses to grow up? What is it that we have against maturity? The last verse of our gospel text is simply this: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Luke is summarizing the previous vignettes. He is telling us that Jesus matured.
I know that not all of us are the goal-setting type. So maybe the fact that the new year is just underway doesn’t make this especially timely for all of us. But here is my word encouragement: let’s make deliberate decisions about who we are becoming. Let’s fashion a life liturgy that shapes us into mature Jesus people. Let’s make the future the good years of our lives by growing, not in a haphazard way dictated by the many cultural liturgies to which we subject ourselves or by the liturgies we might have received from our families of origin, but let’s make the future years good by growing into full Christian maturity. Let’s be about our divine Parent’s business.
In his letter to the Colossians (3:12-17) Paul describes what that might be like. He beings by reminding the recipients of his letter, and us by extension, that Go d loves us and has chosen us. The life of faith is a gift. But this life is also one that calls forth our best efforts, and so Paul says we should put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Don’t be mistaken, these are not virtues of weakness or passivity. These are virtues of power, controlled and directed.
Paul says we should put these on like clothes. What a fertile image—putting them on like clothes. We tend not to make our clothes, but we do put them on deliberately. Once on, we rarely think too much about our clothes, at least if they fit well. And yet there they are, when anyone else looks at us that’s what they see: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience—so we hope. “Above all,” this is Paul again, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” I’m not quite sure how to further elucidate that bit about love. What is it that makes the outfit, the shoes, the purse, the hat, the sidearm (for Americans)? For Paul its love. Love pulls it all together.
In closing, let’s say we’ve decided to be about God’s business, to astonish our parents, our friends even. Let’s say we’ve decided to seek maturity by putting on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and above all love. How do we do that? I started this sermon by speaking of liturgy and worship. I suggested that it is those repeated elements of life, the things we practice again and again that form us over the long term. Look where Paul turns next in Colossians 3 (vv.15-16). He says, “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts . . . . Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” Paul turns to worship and to liturgy.
There is much that we don’t know about the upcoming year, but here are two things we can be quite confident of: First, we can be confident that to be a community of persons growing in the likeness of Jesus we will need to maintain a corporate worship life. This liturgy must be kept vital. Second, I am sure that those of who grow in maturity of character will be those who decide to put on the virtues of Colossians, and they will be those who deliberately craft a life liturgy, repeating and practicing the right sorts of things, that make this possible. It will be those who decide that this is what they must do and not be distracted by what we can do.
So as we begin thinking about a new year, let’s take time to reflect on the various rituals and habits that form us. Let’s astonish our parents, our friends, even our children. Let’s craft a liturgy of life that will bring us ever more alive.