Burnt Barns, Moon Sightings and a Pandemic Christmas—Matthew 1: 18-25
This is the kind of week where preachers earn their pay, preaching joy in the midst of a pandemic Christmas. It was a week where I was reminded of an anonymous quote a first year University English Professor once shared, “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Whatever you think of the reflection this week, however it strikes you let me assure you it is the product of considerable struggle.
You see, I don’t want to be oblivious to the pain and hardships of this COVID Christmas. I don’t want to come across as Eric Idle in the Monty Python movie about a fictional Messiah, The life of Brian, hanging from a cross ridiculously singing “always look on the bright side of life”. I don’t want to leave you bereft of the possibility of joy either, for it’s there in both of the birth narratives of Jesus—hope and joy in the midst of brutally oppressive conditions. My faith, through lived experience also tells me that God is active, alive, always moving creation toward full communion and thus joy.
Things come together for me when I come across the writing of Kristen Groseclose and her love of a seventeenth century haiku by Japanese poet, Mizuta Masahide: “My barn having burned down, I can see the moon.” Kristen, among other things, is the mother of a special needs child with a rare condition. She has a hard time with some of the narratives of parenting such kids, especially those focusing on the unexpected gifts and joys such a life brings. Not that this narrative doesn’t resonate with her experience. It’s just that she feels these narratives don’t reckon enough with the real pain, grief and struggles of parenting special needs kids. To paraphrase her, ‘If we’re going through a period of calm where Jack (her son) is feeling no emotional or physical pain I can appreciate where life has landed me. If I’m feeling scared and lost however, because Jack is battling some random, scary health issue that he can’t verbalize these narratives grate, for they seem to not take the inherent grief of such a life very seriously.’
She goes on to say, ‘I don’t believe in wallowing, but I do believe in processing all of my emotions. Not just the “socially acceptable” ones. After all, emotional honesty gives us all the best chance of moving forward.’ Thus her love of Mizuta Masahide’s haiku:
“My barn having burned down, I can see the moon.” For Kirsten it speaks to the competing joys and sorrows of their situation. Destruction and hope in 10 short words.
While the barn may symbolize the loss of dreams, the revelation of the moon shows how the new reality does hold beauty and awe. She says further, the haiku reminds her of the aftermath of coming to terms with parenting a special needs child: ‘In the smoldering remains of that barn you must clean up the debris, scrape together funds to start over, move the animal feed and figure out where the heck do I put all the animals now? That is life in the aftermath.
My barn having burned down, I can see the moon. It seems to me that both the poem and Kirsten’s life stand in pastoral solidarity with Joseph. Boy, did Joseph’s barn ever burn down. Too often we don’t give these Advent scripture their due. We know what’s coming and we look at them through the filter of the joy of birth, the triumph of love, the comfort of God come among us. In our rush to joy we gloss over the uncertainty and unknowing, the pain and the grief. Let’s put ourselves in Joseph’s story and enter his pre-marriage, pre-birth life for a moment.
His life is a roaring fire of shame, humiliation, community shunning and the guilt of being implicit in the harm and even death that might await Mary if he were to make a big enough stink. Joseph is betrothed to Mary– that’s a more legally binding form of engagement where unfaithfulness was considered adultery. We are told that he is a righteous man so having found out that Mary is pregnant – not with his child – he decides he is going to leave – quietly, so not to disgrace her and cause her more harm than necessary. We might imagine it’s the comfort of this plan, of having some plan that eases his anxious mind into sleep. Then the dream, an angel appears and tells Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy being a holy event and tells him that he is an important part of the holy things that God is doing. A new vista for his life emerges now that the old one has burned down. I wonder about the clean-up of the ashes though. I wonder about the explanations to both their families, the indignity of judging sideways glances.
I wonder about life after Bethlehem. I wonder if as they fled into Egypt, on the run from King Herod if he ever cursed that angel, if he resented Mary. I imagine the pain of wondering if he would ever be able to return to his home as they lived among strangers without the support of extended family to raise their child. Yet, there was that strange visit of the well to do foreigners from the east and their gifts. It helped make sense of the angel’s words. There is in Joseph’s story, sorrow and joy, destruction and hope, ugliness and beauty. My barn having burned down, I can see the moon.
Perhaps that’s the path to joy this COVID Christmas season, to stand in the ashes of Christmas as we knew it, acknowledge the unmet longings, the grief. But at the same time to look around and notice if any previously unseen revelations emerge, some new beauty, new insight. Perhaps, we can find grace in simply knowing that as we stand in the ashes of our Christmas traditions we are protecting others, participating in the human family, acknowledging the interdependence and inter-connectedness of all.
My barn having burned down, I can see the moon. It’s about accepting reality, not falling into denial and engaging in behaviours that put ourselves and others at risk. It’s about acknowledging the grief that comes with acceptance. But it’s also about faith, faith that God is still at work in the world, faith that the cycle of death and resurrection never stops, that beauty and awe are still possible. It’s about being comfortable with ambiguity, holding sorrow and the possibility of joy at the same time.
That’s what Joseph did. Perhaps like him, this Christmas we might just consider the loss of the barn as the start of our journey, not the end. Our Advent trek continues, we’re almost there.
Rev. Joe Gaspar