Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
December 18, 2016
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. (Matt. 1:18)
Skin to Skin
Given that this is such a fertile time in the life of our Young Adults’ group here at St. John’s, I’ve learned a good deal about new babies and new parents. Five babies born to our young adult families since July. Four boys and a girl, and I got to visit all of them either in the hospital or right after they got home. I want to share four things I’ve learned from these young families over the past few months. (NOTE on families.)
First, when it comes to the really important things like life and death and love, none of us really knows what we’re doing. There’s a particularly powerful sense of this when it’s a family’s first child. I walk into the room, and everyone is smiling and excited but also usually really tired, but more than anything else we’re all united by the fact that none of us have any idea what we’re doing. This is particularly true with the dads. A while ago I was with a new family just after their son was born, and I was there when the nurse came in to do a hearing test. This was their first kid, and I’m still a pretty new priest and don’t have kids, so none of us had ever seen the new baby hearing test before. So we just stood there and watched and waited and took turns fidgeting with things on the table while the friendliest nurse on the planet put their baby in one of those trays and put a funny at on him and some little electrical things. We were all nervous because the hearing test machine didn’t actually make any noise or and their baby didn’t do anything that let us know anything was working as it should. So after a few minutes when the nurse said, He’s all good, we were relieved. The hearing test experience just solidified for us what we all knew: we’re all in over our heads.
If there is anyone in the history of the world who was in over his head and had no idea what he was doing, it was Joseph. Engaged to a young woman who is suddenly pregnant, then in a dream an angel of the Lord tells him that the child she is going to have is from the Holy Spirit, and that they have to name him Jesus because the name Jesus means God saves. Poor Joseph. Raising a kid is hard enough and doesn’t come with a manual. I can’t really imagine what it would be like knowing that the kid is, you know, special. But Joseph does what first-time Moms and Dads have always done: figure it out. Sleep when you can. Keep the pointy things out of reach. Trust that the world, despite all its dangers and tragedies, is a fundamentally good place to raise somebody. Go on doing your best, trusting that before any of us is a mom or dad or aunt or uncle or anything else, before we’re anything else we are adopted by our Father in Heaven.
Second thing I’ve learned from all these young adult families having kids is that, even though none of us ultimately knows what we’re doing, that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook: everybody has a job to do. This I’ve noticed more when I visit a family after the birth of their second or third child. A few months ago I was visiting a couple who had just had their third child. As I was walking down the hallway of the hospital I ran into some other friends of theirs who had young kids and were coming to visit as well. I heard them asking for the same room number I was looking for so we joined up and we all paraded down the hall together to the room. When we get into the room, there are flowers and balloons and overnight bags and a couple of grandparents and I think other family members, too. And then I walk in with this whole other family I’ve just met in the hallway. So there’s like a dozen people in this room now, not counting the hospital staff, and it’s noisy and a little chaotic.
We all visited for a while and I got to hold this new little girl and hear that she and her Mom were healthy and everything. Turns out another set of grandparents had been there earlier that morning along with an aunt, and I think either Candice or Robert had been by, too. Anyway, I’m like the 25th person to come see this kid in the past four hours. I’m trying to be helpful, and it’s around lunchtime, so I offer to go pick up lunch for everybody, family’s in town and all that. Now because this is the South and we’ve all got more manners than is actually healthy, everybody politely declines. Oh no, you don’t have to do that, you’re probably so busy, and all that.
I’ve never been one to take a hint, so I insist: It’s really no trouble at all. I’m happy to run and fetch lunch, just want to make sure y’all are taken care of etc.
Well the Dad of this family always shoots pretty straight with me, and this is their third child, so he just pats me on the shoulder and says, Daniel, look, you’re not going to get lunch for anybody because I’m going to do it. I’m going to get out of this room and into my car. I’m going to drive by myself in total silence for a while, and then I’m going to grab lunch and bring it back. You don’t get to come.
The mom laughed from her hospital bed and said, Yeah, he just needs to go drive his car a while, and I look around the room and everyone there is kind of smiling because they’ve all done this together three times already and I’m the only one who doesn’t know who does what. Everyone has a job to do. It wasn’t my job to get lunch. It was the Dad’s job in that family, because it gave him a break from the crowd in the hospital room for a while.
Likewise, Joseph has a very peculiar job to do. Our Gospel passage today starts at verse 18, and the seventeen verses before this one are an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham (1:1). In those seventeen verses, Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry from Abraham all the way to King David, from King David all the way to the first destruction of the Temple when the Israelites are exiled to Babylon, and from the exile in Babylon all the way to Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born (1:16). Joseph’s job in this grand drama of the redemption of the world is to adopt Jesus into his own family line as his own legal son, thereby connecting this miraculous Son of God to the throne of King David. Joseph’s job is to adopt Jesus as his own Son, even as God adopts each of us as his own children. Because Joseph is a Son of David, so too is Jesus. Joseph, husband of Mary.
Furthermore, if Jesus is going to be fully human, then not only does he have to eat and breathe and sleep like the rest of us, but he also has to do those things idiosyncratically. In other words, simply by virtue of being human, Jesus will walk and talk and floss his teeth in a particular way, not because he is the Son of God but simply because he is a unique person just like the rest of us are. Have you ever noticed how your spouse or grandparent or neighbor simply refuses to eat her eggs runny? Or how when he drives he always comes to a long and complete stop at every stop sign? Or how she always leaves toothpaste in the sink?
Jesus grows up in a house where Joseph, this one particular and mostly ordinary man, set the rules. Joseph taught him how to sharpen a knife and make sandwiches. As Jesus grew up, he either adopted or rejected some of those ways of doing very ordinary things, so that, maybe every time Jesus broke bread with his friends he always liked to eat the end piece best for no reason other than that it was Joseph’s favorite, too.
Third thing I’ve learned: everyone has a job to do, but hardly anybody figures that job out on their own. We only know the work we’ve been given to do when it is revealed to us. Once I visited a family right after they’d gotten home from the hospital. Their new baby was lying on this little pallet on the couch, and his big sister was very interested in him. She’s older by almost two years. She was very sweet and loving but she was also learning that she’s a lot bigger than he is and could roll him off the couch if she’s not careful. Her job is to be a loving big sister. She wants to do that work, but she needed her parents to show her how to do it well. We hug gently. We don’t put our fingers in brother’s nose.
Joseph’s job is to adopt Jesus as his own legal son and to raise him as his own. This connects Jesus to the throne of King David and is part of Jesus’ identity as God’s anointed, as God’s Messiah. But Joseph had to be shown this. Left to his own devices, Joseph would have quietly divorced Mary. Not to make a great deal of drama about it, and certainly not to shame Mary, but to quietly exit the relationship as respectfully and quickly as possible. Then an angel of the Lord visits Joseph and a dream and says, Look, I know you’re in over your head, but you’re not splitting with Mary. The child she’s carrying is from the Holy Spirit. Now get on board. Joseph didn’t know what his job was until it was revealed to him. And even then I expect he didn’t know how to go about doing it. I bet the first Saturday after Joseph had his dream, he went fishing with Zebedee and said, Hey, you’re raising two boys. What am I supposed to do?
The fourth thing I’ve learned is that affection might be the most important thing we offer each other. None of us remembers it, but being born is traumatic. Everything is loud and glaringly bright and it’s cold”no wonder babies enter the outside world making so much noise. So as soon as it is possible, the nurses and doctors hand the baby back to the mother to hold, skin to skin. It just makes everyone feel better. Once when I visited a new family they were still doing skin to skin. I didn’t want to disrupt anything so was going to leave and come back later but they invited me in anyway, and everything was just quiet and peaceful. The lights were low. We weren’t even in a room but in a curtained off area in a corner because the hospital was so full. Baby was warm and calm; the new Mom was good; and most of all it was powerful to see the new dad seeing his wife and child together for the first time. It was a holy time.
It was the first time I’d ever visited a new baby as a priest. This was the couple’s first child. None of us knew what we were doing. We were just there, during the skin-to-skin time, and like Joseph, all we knew was that God was in the midst of it.
In the season of Advent, we’re preparing for the coming of our Lord. We’re preparing for the incarnation of the Son of God. We’re preparing for Jesus of Nazareth, which is to say that we’re preparing to meet God skin-to-skin. When we are affectionate with each other, it’s an outward and visible sign of God’s incarnation, of God’s coming to us in human flesh to greet us skin to skin. When a new couple kisses each other in front of everyone at their wedding, we’re seeing the affection of God, skin to skin. When a mom puts her hand on the forehead of her child to see if he has a fever, we’re seeing another instance of how God reaches out to us, skin to skin. When an old man in a hospital gown shares his jello with his grandson and wipes a green blob of it from the kid’s mouth with the blade of his thumb”skin to skin. When two friends meet shake hands and meet for a beer after just a long, long week”skin to skin. I see it after Sunday services when there are little clusters of people here and there, just talking, checking on each other. When you shake hands with each other during the passing of the peace in a few minutes”skin to skin.
In the calendar of the Church we’re preparing to welcome our Lord and Savior into our midst, and yet in the grand arc of history, we are still living in the skin-to-skin time of the Church, only a short while after the birth of the Son of God, who holds us to himself.
The mystery we celebrate in the Eucharist is the mystery of God’s skin to skin time. God becomes body and blood. In eating the bread and drinking the wine, Christ becomes our body and blood. It’s a mystery in the midst of which none of us really knows what we’re doing, not fully. Yet we all have jobs to do in that mystery. Whether we are in the pews or acolyting or serving a chalice or serving the bread, we have jobs to do. And what’s more, none of us would know how to do our jobs unless someone else had revealed it to us. Little kids in the pews see these acolytes up here working, and one day, hopefully, they’re up here in a funny robe, like those five young adult babies will be in 12 or 13 years. And they realize that, even though we’ve all done this liturgy a thousand times before, we’re always really just practicing. We don’t understand it fully, but it has been revealed to us as ours to do. Every Sunday all of us up here are looking at each other during the Gospel hymn, making meaningful contact or nodding to each other, Okay, we go now? No? Next verse. Okay we’ll go after the next verse. Wait, go now? The Eucharist is always the same but it’s also always new. It’s impossible to do it perfectly, but it is possible to do faithfully.
This is how we live together as Church. We don’t fully understand the mystery of what it is we are, but we know we have a job to do. Furthermore, like a good acolyte squad, we know we depend on each other and on those who have gone before us to know what our mission is in the world. And every now and then, by the grace of God, we find that we actually are the Body of Christ, the continued incarnation of the Son of God, here in our corner of the world, greeting strangers and newcomers and all the company of earth the way God greets us: with the simple, warm-hearted affection of skin on precious