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In Praise of Other Children – 12/21/2014

How many December birthdays do we have here this morning – show of hands? Happy birthday to you, friends. This isn’t the easiest month to have a birthday in, now, is it? For most people living in America, having a birthday in December puts the celebration of their lives into competition of a sort with the celebration of another life – one that is very difficult to compete with. Most of us don’t have songs commemorating our birthdays, or special foods that folks only eat when our day is drawing near. Strangers don’t ring church bells to celebrate the hour of our birth, and folks don’t get the day off from work or school in our honor. If you were born in December, I would venture to guess that somehow, someway, sometime or another, you have felt overshadowed by what is hard to dispute as the most famous birthday in the Western world.

On this Sunday each year our children tell us the story of that birthday – the one belonging to Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s son. As with any story from scripture –

or any story worth listening to, for that matter – one of the best ways to learn from it is to imagine ourselves as each of the figures in the story. As new and unsteady parents at the mercy of a harsh world. As far-wandering seekers, on a spiritual journey we may not fully comprehend. Even as a bitter, jealous monarch, driven by a very real fear of losing our crowns – or our heads. But stories also say something by the people they leave out. And some of the absent figures in the Christmas story, very nearly absent in the whole of the Gospels, are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

The canonical Gospels do report that the teacher Jesus was not an only child. Mark[i] and Matthew[ii] attest that he had four brothers, and name them James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude. Mark also mentions sisters, but no number or name. A tradition of the very early church says that there were two, named Mary and Salome. There is dispute in the Christian tradition as to exactly how these people were related to Jesus: whether they were half-siblings, or Joseph’s children from a previous marriage, or a few other possibilities. What’s interesting to me is that almost every possible explanation has Jesus as either the eldest child in his family, or the youngest. Taken together, they make all of his anonymous and near-anonymous siblings into middle children.

A December birthday is just a taste of what it might have been like to grow up in the same household as the man who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[iii] What might those children, long grown up and passed from the world of the living, think now to watch a few billion people tell their brother’s story every year – a great many of them, every Sunday – and yet not even remember all their names?

No matter how blissful a childhood we might have had or be having, most of us have been left feeling hurt or sad for a lack of attention or recognition from our parents or other family members at one time or another. Still, I call our attention to the nearly-forgotten siblings of Jesus not in an attempt to democratize fame and veneration. It is not some theological equivalent of the much-maligned philosophy in youth soccer leagues that “everybody gets a trophy for participation.” I mention the sisters and brothers of Jesus as a reminder of the preciousness and wonder and value of every life which is just as true for the famous, as for the infamous, as for the utterly unknown. I point this out not despite the story of Christmas, but because of it. Christmas, after all, is a celebration of the man who said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”[iv] Who taught, “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”[v] Who understood God as a parent who has no favorite children – but whose love is so great and so unthinkably vast, that there is enough for all people, in all times, and all places.

Even if you spent every hour of December in church, or even if the words and stories of scripture never crossed your lips or your mind, there is no way to properly celebrate Christmas, and to have it be about just one child, only one person. We can only bless that one child by blessing all children. We can only honor that one person by honoring all people. So in this season, may our hearts bend further towards our friends and our enemies; towards those whom we love and those we do not yet love. May the spirit of Christmas move us to praise other children, whatever their age, or relation.

[i] Mark 6:3

[ii] Matthew 13:55

[iii] John 14:6

[iv] Matthew 5:5

[v] Matthew 25:40


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