When I was training as a pastor, I went through a…well, let’s just say it was an alternative route. I didn’t go to seminary before I was ordained. I did go later, but not until about twenty years into my ministry. Consequently there were some holes in my training. One of them had to do with pastoral care, specifically around issues of grief, illness, and dying.
When one of our parishioners was about to die, I realized that I was woefully unprepared to minister to him effectively, so I made an appointment up at the Lutheran seminary with the professor of pastoral care there. I asked him, “What do I say to someone who is grieving or scared or dying? I feel completely at a loss. I feel helpless. Worse, I feel useless.”
The professor was very compassionate. He said, “Imagine for a moment that you’ve just been told you have a month to live. Would you want someone giving you advice?”
“No,” I said. “I think I’d just want someone to hold me and cry with me.”
He smiled and put his hand on my arm. “So why don’t you try that?” he asked.
And that was some of the best pastoral advice I’ve ever received. What I learned was that it wasn’t anything I said that would make a difference in people’s lives. I didn’t need to be wise or clever. I didn’t need to fix anything or solve their problems. What I needed to do, and the only thing I needed to do, was to show up. I simply needed to be with them, to give them my full attention, to be vulnerable and honest and present with them.
That’s it. That’s what we mean by “pastoral presence.” What helps most in a situation like that is simple human caring and connection. That’s what love does.
And this, I think, is also the key to understanding Christmas. We in the Christian tradition have spun some pretty wild and elaborate theological schematics about why Jesus came and how he saves us—I could draw you a whole series of complicated, Rube Goldberg-esque flow charts explicating the Recapitulation or the Christus Victor or the Penal Substitution theories of the atonement. And to be honest, I love digging into those geeky theological conversations, but to some degree, I think, they all miss the point.
One theory that isn’t talked about very much is the Franciscan theory of the atonement. And the reason it isn’t talked about much is that…well, it’s only really embraced by Franciscan friars. It isn’t propounded by any major Christian denomination, not even by the Roman Catholic church. It’s also not very intellectual, so there’s not much you can say about it. There’s nothing to make a flow chart of, really.
It’s just this. God loves us so much, he wanted to be with us. In Jesus, God visited us, and became one of us forever. Not to fix us. Not to teach us. Not to make everything better. Just to be WITH us. Because that’s what love does.
Throughout Advent we’ve been shaking our fist at heaven and saying, “How long, O God, will you allow injustice to prevail?” We want God to reach in and fix everything, to make our enemies hurt they same way they have hurt us, but as we’ve seen, this isn’t the way God works. Instead, God’s plan is much more humane, simple, and quiet.
A baby is born on a cold night in Israel. And now that he’s here, everything is different. Because now God is with us in a way that God never was before. God is physically present to hold us and cry with us.
God didn’t give us pat answers. God didn’t solve all of our problems. God didn’t give us the secret teachings that would make everything better. Instead, God just came to be with us. And somehow the fact that Jesus was here, that he became one of us and is one of us still, that he holds us and cries with us and is always present to us…well, if that’s not salvation, I don’t know the meaning of the word.
Because really, what all of us need, more than anything else, is relationship, to be loved and embraced and cared for. In Jesus, God has come to be in relationship with us, to love us and embrace us and care for us. It is the fact that he is WITH us that saves us, for we can never be separated from him again. Our life is a shared life with him, and since his life goes on forever…so will ours.
Let us pray…
God we give you thanks that you have not given us just a book, or laws or rules.
Instead, you have given us your very self.
In Jesus you came to be with us, sharing every part of our lives, and he is with us still.
Thank you for your pastoral care.
Because Jesus showed us how to do it, we can do it for others.
Be with us always, loving us, embracing us, sharing with us your life.
For we ask this in the name of the child of Bethlehem. Amen.