Saturday, January 2, 2016

Jesus - The Missing Years

Second Sunday after Christmas C – January 3, 2016 / Luke 2:41-52
Jesus – The Missing Years
As a child I would sit in the living room and listen to records, sometimes all day long. Most were from my parents’ collection like Frank Sinatra, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Rhapsody in Blue. At Christmas time one in particular was a favorite: The Last Month of the Year by the Kingston Trio. One song stood out as strange, but I never figured it out until years later. Mary Mild, a traditional English folk Carol.

Mary Mild, or, The Bitter Withy ca. 1400
As it fell out on a cold winter day, the drops of rain did fall.
Our Savior asked leave of his mother, Mary, if He might go play at ball.

"Go up the hill," His mother said, "and there you will find three jolly children.
But let me hear no complaint of You when You come home again."

But the children said, "We are royal sons and we will not play at ball,
For You are but a poor maid's child, born in an oxen stall."

"If you are Lord's and Ladies' sons and you will not play at ball.
I'll build you a bridge of the beams of the sun to play upon us all."

And he built him a bridge from the beams of the sun, and over the pools they played all three And the mothers called, "Mary, call home your child," ere ours all drowned be.

Mary mild (Mary mild, Mary mild), Mary mild (Mary mild) called home her Child.
And when she asked Him, "Why?" Said He,
"Oh, I built them a bridge of the beams of the sun so they would play at ball with me.
So they would play with me."

Years later I was reading the first of Frederick Beuchner’s books about Leo Bebb, a most unusual evangelist. The book is Lion Country, and the protagonist, Antonio Parr sets out to expose Bebb as a fraud. The book is in turns hilarious, touching and seriously theological. While holed up in a hotel near Bebb’s center of operations in Florida Antonio is reading an Oxford collection of apocryphal stories about Jesus, many of which were unearthed in 1945 in Egypt.

Since our gospel for today is the only glimpse we get of the young Jesus, and he is portrayed as a lot to handle for his mother, Mary, some of these stories that were found attempt to recreate a childhood for our Lord. This song is styled after one of these tales, and the original story and folk song provide more detail and context.

As we heard, young Jesus wants to play with other children. His mother sends him out with a warning not to do anything to cause others to complain. Yet, when he goes out he is met with rejection: we are royal sons and you are the son of a poor maid and were born in an oxen stall. This is consistent with the first chapter of John which speaks of his coming to dwell among us, but is not accepted by others including his own townspeople.

So the enterprising Jesus offers to build a bridge of sun beams over the pools of water standing from the winter rains. This he does, and in the traditional tale, he dances over the bridge while the three royal sons drown. We are reminded of Peter who begins to sink beneath the waves for a lack of faith.  And again, we heard in Advent in the Song of Mary (The Magnificat, Luke 1: 46-53) that he is born to scatter the proud, bring down the mighty from their thrones and exalt the humble and meek.

The town mother’s beg Mary to call him home, and in the traditional story and song she spanks him with twigs from the withy or willow tree, he who will near the end of the gospel story himself hang from a tree crucified by Rome. In the song, however, he gets the last word: “Oh bitter withy. oh bitter withy / That causes me to smart./ Oh the withy shall be very first tree / To perish at the heart.” To this day the willow is the one tree that rots from the heart instead of from the outside, much like we sinners Jesus comes to save.

It is a cautionary tale to be sure. The lessons are many, beginning with how we treat others who are different than we are – how do we greet the stranger, “the other,” or not. The song calls us to reflect on why we tend to reject some people without even getting to know them. It also means to remind us of many of the core stories and themes of the gospel around following Jesus, having faith in him, and caring for the people he cares for the most, especially those born of low estate as he is. There is also a moral for children not to misbehave, with a reminder that this child can rule the wind, the waves and all of nature when called upon to do so.

Across four books of The Book of Bebb, Beuchner’s Antonio Parr learns similar lessons: he learns to appreciate that the man he took for a fraud really does understand our Lord’s desire to mold us all, from all walks of life, into a community around a common table doing for others as we would have them do for us.

I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to and sung this song. It is part of my spiritual upbringing. I get some comfort knowing that the Son of God was much like any other of us at an early age. And why shouldn’t he be? A principal assertion in our creeds is that he is fully human. I think we can also gain a greater appreciation for his young mother Mary, who is portrayed repeatedly as pondering and treasuring these kinds of things in her heart. Apparently it was no easier raising the Son of God than it was to raise any one of us!

At the end of the day, and the Kingston Trio’s adaptation of the song, Jesus just wants to play with us. He wants to lead us in dancing and singing in the Light, the light that is the life of every person. The light of the world. He wants us to dance on the beams of the sun, not wither up like the withy tree. When we accept Jesus and his invitation to play, life is changed forever Amen.

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