What was he thinking, showing up here with a group of angels, a few sheep and some astrologers?
Ask us to go the distance with a God we can't see, touch or put on our Mastercard? If it weren't so outrageous, the idea would seem almost whimsical.
Whether it be sticking with a prayer routine, or a diet, a friendship or a relationship, our lives are freckled with times when we gave up, or gave in, or just forgot. And yet here we are, celebrating Christmas and the new year around the bend -- wondering, many of us, how the heck we are going to improve upon our past track records.
Take marriage, for instance. Judging by American divorce statistics, we are a nation more in love with the idea of love than with the persistent, and often difficult realities of loving. And in that respect, Christians don't look all that different from anyone else.
As a parish priest, I have served both economically challenged and well-educated, prosperous congregations. In the affluent churches, parishioners regularly attended Bible Study, took leadership roles in missions, and sent their children to youth group and Sunday School. But the congregants and often the clergy (including myself) shared a common trait with the rest of American society -- a seeming inability to stay wed to the same person.
Yet God invites us to stay the course in our journey with Jesus. What does God see in us, that we oftentime don't sense in ourselves?
Divorced or not, we are all too often fickle.
Come the fight for which there is no swift "I'm sorry" or the differences we cannot cleanly resolve, we seem all prone to turn our eyes elsewhere, whether that place is our work, or our children, or somebody elses' (usually temporarily) inviting bed. Yet God, who knows every longing of our sometimes warped souls, invites us to keep our eyes fixed on a vulnerable child and his poor young parents -- and to see them as icons of love unbounded.
There is certainly plenty of evidence to discourage us. Christians often look remarkably like the culture they inhabit. When it comes to big cars, large houses, and iPads, those who profess to follow Jesus often don't appear to have given up much for the Kingdom.
Yet God calls us to be distinct -- even when being distinct can lead us into uncomfortable, alien and dangerous territory. God's faith in us seems much bigger, more demanding, more frightening, than our faith in ourselves. Talk about the audacity of hope. Year after year, we are confronted with a creator who wants to sharpen our vision of a world in which children don't die of hunger or abuse, and adults treat each other with kindness and compassion.
I know I'm not capable of meeting those expectations on my own -- but once again, Christmas comes as a reminder, almost a dare, to ask for grace to become a little more like the person God sees in me. More like that family in a barn facing a future together under the watchful eye of a few angels and shepherds.
Outrageous, isn't it? But if God can keep showing up, then perhaps we might consider doing it too -- and hoping God will forgive those times when we were "unavoidably detained."