Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, MN)
Scripture: Ezra 1:1-4 and 3:1-4, 10-13
Last weekend Javen and I spent most of Saturday on his grandparents’ farm near Dassel, Minnesota. We and almost a dozen other members of the extended family gathered together for a Swedish celebration of Christmastime. Javen and his grandmother worked together for several hours making thin potato pancakes, or lefse. I did my part by taking pictures and downing cups of glögg, a potent Scandinavian drink. When it came time for dinner, we ate great heaps of delicious homemade food, including Swedish meatballs and the lefse (with butter spread by traditional wooden knives), on special holiday china that Grandma Aileen has had for many years. To show that I too could get into the Swedish holiday spirit, I even had me a little piece of lutefisk. The only thing we were missing in this postcard-ready Swedish Christmas were those iconic Scandinavian sweaters, but I assure you that one has been ordered for next year.
Because Javen and I can’t be at the main family dinner on Christmas Eve, this annual lefse and lutefisk Saturday has become a new tradition. Much like decorating a tree, hanging stockings, baking cookies, sending cards, and singing Silent Night by candlelight, this annual ritual reconnects us with heritage and our family. When we gather around a table with loved ones and classic foods, it just feels like home.
This comfort of ritual, familiarity and belonging was the first order of business for the Hebrew people when they returned to Jerusalem from exile. Forbidden their customs, songs and temple worship for seventy years, Jews received a new lease on their cultural life when King Cyrus of Persia released them to go home. The first thing they did on getting back to Jerusalem was to restart the traditions they had had for generations, all the way back to the glory days of King David. A new altar was erected, so that sacrifices and annual festivals could resume. Ezra the priest wasted no time in setting up the foundations of a new temple. King Solomon’s great temple had been looted of its treasure and burned to the ground, so it was imperative to replace it with a new one. The temple, after all, was a site where God had promised to be especially present. In the language of Celtic Christianity, the temple was a “thin place” where heaven and earth were so close they all-but-touched.
Making sacrifices and making lefse—both customs that go back for generations. Setting the table with classic china and setting up the temple—signs of belonging and historic meaning. For fifth-century Jews, returning to traditions and the rebuilding of the temple were a sign that the exile was over, a mortal threat to Hebrew existence had been defeated, and they were truly back for good. Gathering with loved ones and traditional practices, the Hebrew people knew who they were once more. They felt at home again.
But not everyone was perfectly at ease. All was not exactly right, just as it had been before the exile. We read that among the old-timers in the Hebrew crowd, there was grief as well as gladness. Some were there who remembered the earlier temple before it burned, and the memory of it flowed down their wrinkled cheeks. Was the new temple smaller than the earlier one? Were they grieving the loss of that golden age, before the captivity caused such destruction? What were the tears of the elders about? We can’t know for certain, but I suspect that it was some mix of heavy emotions: longing, loss, anticipation, and hope mixed with sadness for the pain of the past. Craig Koester from Luther Seminary imagines “That sense of power of the passing of the years, to the life that once was. You can recall, but you can’t hold on to [it]. There’s a sense of being carried forward to a place you might not have expected to be.” In the same podcast, Rolf Jacobson describes this scene of ancient praise, singing the old psalms at the site of a new temple, as “nostalgic and painful and joyful and celebratory” all at the same time.
The Hebrew exiles anticipated that all would be made right when they get home, exactly like it used to be. But those who had lived through many a season realized that there is no going back in an absolute sense. That time had passed, and must be grieved (or at least acknowledged) as the people adjust to new realities and circumstances. And still, there’s a celebration of and gratitude for what has come to pass, for the easing in which they find themselves.
Perhaps one must have loved and lost in order to fully understand. But this twinge of grief in the midst of gladness is familiar at the holidays. How many of us have already remembered to others or ourselves those we used to spend the holidays with? Hanging the stockings just so, we remember boisterous years past filled with children and laughter. Baking cookies with Mom’s recipe always brings her to mind. As Javen and I were decorating our tree this week, we hung a stained glass star on top that my grandfather made for the family decades ago. He passed away eight years ago at Christmastime, but I still see him leaning over his workbench making beauty with his calloused hands. Who is it that you think of in the traditions of Advent and Christmas? For those who have lost loved ones just recently, this first Christmas will be especially difficult. And for some, the lament of this season is that there was no picture-perfect family Christmas to begin with. Still others are carefully keeping the customs, mindful that children or parents are growing older, and future holidays won’t be the same. We do know the poignancy of observing traditions as time marches on. People change, and customs themselves shift as the years go by. You can’t actually go home again to just the way things were, just as you can’t step in the same river twice.
Ultimately though, home is not the temple, or a certain tradition, or the people gathered around the table. Fundamentally, “home” is a state of the heart. The good news of Jesus Christ’s appearing in the world, soon and very soon, is that God has chosen to make a home with us. No matter who we are, or where we are on life’s journey. This means that even as we try to preserve customs or re-create home, our hearts are being transformed at a deeper level to carry the God’s grace in the form of a baby. As Rev. Ken Samuel wrote for the UCC’s Daily Devotional on Monday, “Home is much more than an address. It’s a habitation of the heart.”
So this Advent season, as we prepare our homes and as we prepare here at church for the coming of the Christ child, let the grace at the heart of this season be born anew in you. Recall that which is lovely from the past, give thanks for what is present now, pray for patience when things don’t feel like they used to, and anticipate a future guaranteed to us in Christ, where all is made well and our hearts are finally at peace.
Let us pray: O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come; our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home: our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Fill us with your joy in this season, whatever the situation or the people. Lead us by your grace, that we may anticipate our eternal homecoming with you. Amen.
 I Love to Tell the Story podcast from WorkingPreacher.org (Luther Seminary, MN) for December 13, 2015. Available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=686.
 Kenneth L. Samuel, “Back Home, but Not the Same” Stillspeaking Daily Devotional (UCC.org) for December 7, 2015. Available at: http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_back_home_but_not_the_same