Fourth Thursday of Advent (Year B)
Advent Mediation by The Reverend Julia Macy Offinger
“So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.”
Of all the duties that come with being a priest, the one that has always intimidated me the most is preaching a “children’s sermon.” On the face of it, it seems like it should be easy. Surely the “adult sermon” must be harder to create and deliver than a little morsel for the kids. But, it turns out, kids are much more difficult audiences than adults, because kids really listen.
The first children’s sermon I was ever tasked to deliver was on Christmas Eve at the parish where I did my seminary field education. The Christmas story is what you might call a “softball” for a brand new preacher, especially as the subject of a children’s sermon. And yet, I couldn’t decide what to do or what to say to the kids. So I decided to tell them all about the manger. That’s a kind of a weird word that most kids don’t know about, and if they do know about it, they only know it as the place the baby slept, not by its original meaning as the place that animals ate. Surely a group of little kids on Christmas Eve would be fascinated by this etymological deep-dive … or so I hoped.
My old boss says he knew the sermon was going south when my opening line was the question, to the group of young kids: “Who here speaks French?” This being New York City, a few kids did raise their hands, but no one could answer the follow up: “What does the verb manger mean?” Crickets.
“Well,” I said, “it means to eat. And Mary laid Jesus in the manger, where animals ate.” Now the kids were getting warmed up. “And we eat Jesus!” one yelled back.
Hmmm, baby cannibalism. Not the direction I really meant to go with my first children’s sermon. And yet, of course, the child was on to something. As Mary lays her baby in his first bed, she wraps him in the bands of cloth that foreshadow his burial, and she lays him in the feeding trough for the animals that foreshadows the last supper. Though I definitely could have come up with a more graceful way to introduce the concept to the children gathered in church that Christmas Eve many years ago, Jesus’ birth on Christmas is always connected to his death on the cross, his resurrection, and the miracle of the Eucharistic feast that we share as Christians.
This year’s Eucharistic feast looks a little different. It’s not the one we hoped for, it’s different than the ones we’ve previously shared. But in that difference, it’s perhaps the closest we’ve gotten to sharing in the messiness, the dirtiness, the unexpectedness of the first Christmas. What miracles lie in the mess, in the complication, in the darkness for you this Christmas? The baby in his manger invites us to see them with new eyes.