Too often, church is seen as something carnal, full of empty ceremony or both.
To illustrate this point, I heard a joke about church once that bears repeating. A horde of chipmunks were flooding a street that had three churches on it. The first two used brutal, inhumane means to kill the chipmunks and felt bad about it. The third was a Catholic Church. There the priest said that their method would not get rid off all of them all of the time and his method would make sure that they would only have to deal with them Christmas and Easter. He would baptize them.
The joke made the audience and I laugh but there was a kernel of truth to it. Often there are people that will do their duty by darkening the door of a church for those special occasions but stay away otherwise even if they felt “touched” by their experiences. People that are only holiday church goers also find church attendance then as less threatening. So they get a spiritual feeding and go home and not to return until later. Hardly the layout of a good spiritual family to just take the blessing and run.
The truest Holy Family is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three in One. Three Who’s and one What. It is the highest experience of a community of persons we can presently point to. In those three persons are the Father who initiates love, the Son who responds the love and the Holy Spirit who proceeds as the personhood of love between.
Church, as founded by Jesus, is meant to be an extension of this divine fellowship where heaven and earth meet. Not because it looks nice nor gives the members goosebumps. A gathering of people as Christians is always to join together in Jesus and worship the Father in Jesus. It is his higher purposes to be met whether it is set of two or three gathered in his name or something even more deliberate. A gathering for higher purposes in the Old Testament was considered a solemn assembly. It was their everything. It was the qahal. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in 2nd Century BC an assembly was translated as ekklesia.
Church was about being called out to something. The Greeks would refer the a small democratic town leaving the village to a nearby forest for a vote on what we might call a ballot measure. the “ek” was the out of. This comes to mind where we read in the Bible where God tells his people to come out and be separate for the world. The highest point for an assembly is to be consecrated in some way. This was needed because it was a sacrifice.
The important thing to note is that the advancing kingdom of God has an aspect that transcends what we can measure with our senses but still is true. The traits are there. This is why for them then and in modern times we need eyes to see and ears to hear and all the while without fear. For this family God started is supposed to walk in the, “[P]erfect love [that] casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:17).
But in looking at the splendor of these truths of Jesus and the kingdom he founded in a heavenly context, we should not forget the roles of simplicity and humility that are communicated in the four gospels. This is why two of them, Matthew and Luke, give what is called the Infancy Narratives. Most of the storyline centers on three persons who are called in different Christian traditions the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. They serve as a basic template in truth and virtue for communities to be inspired by in the ages to come that call themselves Christian. One is not recorded for any of his words but suggests a sense of wonder. One is filled with grace and says a yes heard for all time. And one is grace and truth realized (John 1:17), “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and was born in the “house of bread” called Bethlehem. Let us go forward and explore this Church of Bethlehem.
My hope in drawing the reader to the events that surround the birth and nativity is that they would allow the truths in those scriptures with a new perspective that would inspire a fuller understanding of Jesus Christ.
But skepticism can kick in if inquiring into Christianity when seeing what does not appeal to common sensibilities. Items such as mystery in ceremony, demands of “thou shalt not’s” and traditions that are not at first explained. For the modern person who wants to make sure everything makes sense it can be a bit distasteful to an inpatient mind. But with patiences one can ponder the Christmas story the right way and in turn ponder the person of Jesus and his call to follow him but in a different view by a baby’s coo. Encountering who Jesus is can be best seen through the lens of a responding to a proposition and not a passionless obedience to an imposition.
Seeing the participants in the Christmas story in a full way can reinforce that the plan of God is not oppressive but a guide to how and why we are made in the first place. This small family points obedience to the will of God that honors our design and does not demean it. In the words of GK Chesterton, “When is a train most free? When it is on it’s tracks”. Bethlehem, meaning house of bread, is a beacon that points us to tracks of the Father’s house instead of a courthouse.
Thus, we are called to encounter God with head and heart. A recurring point in the narratives is that the gospel is meant especially for those most in a humble state of mind so they can grasp the simplicity of the gospel. Jesus rejoiced at this saying, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike” (Matthew 11:25).
Going forward, let us prepare the way of Jesus in our hearts individually but in the context of disciples be intentional as the church of Jesus on the terms of Jesus. A Christ-centric community is to decrease as Jesus would increase.