This Christmas, there are four additional feet in my house. Well, there are four additional paws, to be precise. Just before Thanksgiving I brought a new, eight-week old Yellow Labrador puppy into my house, to add to the seven and a half year-old Lab, Baxter, that I got when I first moved to Philadelphia. Ozzie, now three months old, is cute as the Dickens: think of the Cottonelle commercial, or the cover of the LL Bean catalog, think Marley, and you will get the idea. His ears flop around, and he has a little, black button nose, expressive, sad-ish eyes, and he is just now starting to lose his puppy breath.
I had forgotten how much work a puppy is. I forgot that it would be a couple of weeks before he could sleep through the night without having to go outside. I forgot that puppies interact with the world using their mouths, and have to chew or lick or otherwise taste everything. I forgot how sharp a puppy’s teeth are! I forgot how much puppies enjoy shredding paper, or the fringe of a carpet. I forgot how tasty every single pair of shoes is, socks, too. I forgot how high a puppy can jump and how fast he can run on his little legs.
And I forgot that a puppy always has to pee. I forgot how important it is to control the water input, so you can try to control the output. But my puppy, Ozzie, loves to slurp up the water in his dish, and thinks nothing of letting go any time, any place, in any posture. He has left a little puddle behind him while standing, sitting , and lying down – which seems so wrong to me. But what can you do?
Walking with Ozzie on a leash requires constant corrections – mostly to keep him from grabbing Baxter’s leash in his mouth or nipping at Baxter’s ears as we walk. Ozzie is interested in every book on my coffee table and every plant in the garden. He has developed a taste for snow, and loves to walk through Rittenhouse Sqaure helping himself to mouthfulls of snow in different patches. He likes to remove the bedding from his crate, dragging it out into the room, when given the freedom to come and go. He cannot be fed in the same room as Baxter, because he will eat Baxter’s food. Ditto, the cat’s food.
And did I mention how sharp his teeth are? They have been into every part of me, from my ankles to my nose.
I had gotten used to having an older dog around. I vaguely remember that Baxter may have behaved in some of these ways, but he has become a very good dog. His only short-coming is that he will find and devour any food within his grasp that is left unattended. But other than that he is completely trustworthy, loyal, friendly, and loving. He generally comes when he is called. His teeth never sink into anything but his food. And it has been a long, long, long time since he had an accident in the house.
Baxter is a wonderful dog - not without his problems since he is afflicted with both epilepsy and Addison’s Disease, both of which we treat with medication – but still, he is a dog that requires relatively little of me except that I feed him and take him out for romps, and let him sleep on the bed next to me. He doesn’t need to be at the center of attention all the time. He is happy to be a part of the background of every day and every night, and now and then to come to the fore, especially if food is involved.
As the snow fell last weekend, and as Christmas came, it has been very picturesque to have a handsome Labrador puppy around, and his older adopted brother. It’s given me pause to think of my sister, who is raising twin boys, now four and a half. How does she do it? I have no idea! But she does. And you have done it, too, most likely. We manage to raise our puppies and our children – demanding though they may be. And we celebrate Christmas with them, (if we are lucky, in the snow!) And we are greeted every year with images of the baby Jesus, tender and mild. Isn’t that nice?
And it is hard for us to imagine that this baby Jesus requires anything of us. Hard to imagine that the baby Jesus needs us half as much as my puppy needs me. After all, Jesus has been around a long time – a lot longer than Baxter, for instance. We have gotten used to Jesus being in the background of our lives: sometimes as a name to take in vain, sometimes as the inspiration for various kinds of freaks, sometimes at the heart of some extreme religion, sometimes as a source of confusion, and sometimes as the butt of jokes. We can hardly imagine that Jesus requires very much of us at all, except perhaps to show up at church once and a while.
Speaking for myself (and I am a priest, if you hadn’t noticed), I can only say that it is sometimes hard to imagine that Jesus would require of me as much as my puppy does: the constant attention, waking up in the middle of the night, planning my days around his needs, his habits, his growing up. But to say that is quite a thing, isn’t it? To imagine that Jesus requires less of me or of you than a puppy does? And does it help us see just how backwards we often get it?
Of course Jesus must require something more of me and of you, if we really want to be his people, than my puppy requires of me. More attention, more devotion, more sacrifice, more waking up in the middle of the night. And this is where the choice to live a Christian life becomes difficult. Do we want to get into a relationship with this child Jesus, who will demand so much of us?
The other day I was walking down the street with both dogs on leashes. Baxter has a red collar and leash, and Ozzie wears blue. I must have been struggling a bit to keep the little one under control. And a man looked at me and the dogs quizzically as he passed, and said to me, “That’s why I don’t want a dog!”
To which I replied, “But this is precisely why you should want a dog!” Because the secret that parents and dog-owners alike know, is that, on balance, it is worth it. That the joy of allowing a puppy, or better yet, a child, into your life far outweighs the burden of rearing it.
And this is also a secret of the Christian life: that the joy of allowing this demanding child Jesus into our lives far outweighs the burden of letting him grow up in our lives, of discovering how demanding he is.
Mary must have found this out. Who was ever more burdened by a child than the mother whose child was announced by an angel as Emmanuel, God with us, the Son of God? What did she think as he grew up, as demanding as any other child? How did she scold him, with her secret knowledge? And how did her own life change, as she carried the burden of having said Yes to Gabriel? All we know is that she did. And that when the day came that found him nailed to the Cross, she was still there for him, her care among his last concerns.
Every year in December, we are reminded that God asked Mary to say Yes to the child in her life. And we come together, in the snow if we are lucky, to remember this holy birth, the silent night, the manger, and the angels. And then as the months roll by, we so easily let Jesus fade into the background of our lives, even more quickly than a puppy grows up and becomes a dog, who is easily left alone for many hours, who is content to be fed, and to steal the occasional roast left out on the counter, (Baxter doesn’t do things by halves, he steals the whole thing), who never has accidents in the house, and becomes as comfortable and easy a part of the background of our lives as can be. But let a puppy in your life, to paraphrase Henry Higgins, and your serenity is through.
And let this baby Jesus into your life - who, for the moment, no crying he makes, but who is sure to awaken at any moment, ask any mother – and your life will not be the same either. You may think of letting Jesus into your life – really letting him in - in much the same way that man thought of having a dog when he saw me trying to walk the two of mine at the same time – a nuisance or an inconvenience, or just too demanding. But this is to miss the point. It is to fail to see the joy that comes from living not for yourself but for others. It is to miss the heart-pounding love that would lay down its life for its child, its friend. It is to be blind to the hope that comes from discovering that what was a struggle yesterday seems a little bit easier today. And it is to be cut off from the freedom that only comes through the service of God and his people.
It’s very common, I think, to wish that puppies would stay cute and cuddly for ever. But that would come with a high price that would involve, in my house, a lot of paper towels, among other things. Better to let the puppy grow up and learn and become a dog. And I suppose we might wish for a faith that is like Christmas all year long – a kind of Narnia where the snow is always on the ground – and Jesus is always a good little baby, being taken care of by his mother, with nothing required of us.
But the message of the Christmas angels to come and behold him is not intended to stop there, at the window, looking in. We are meant to welcome the child Jesus into our whole lives, every day, every hour.
Every year after Christmas, animal shelters experience a rush of abandoned dogs, who seemed like such cute Christmas presents when they were fluffy puppies with red bows on their necks. Often there is a noticeable increase of a particular breed, because of a holiday film. Last year it was Yellow Labradors, dumped at shelters because it turns out that, in fact, they are at least as much trouble as Marley.
It’s frankly even easier to dump Jesus after Christmas, to decide that he is simply too much trouble to keep in your life.
And, in fact, it’s true, if you keep Jesus around in your life you will find that he is very demanding. But you will find something else, the more you give yourself over to his demands. You find that he teaches you to love, that he opens your heart with a spirit of generosity and gratitude. You find that life is different, better, richer, fuller because you let him in even when you thought you had no room and you had shut the door like a certain inn-keeper we all know about.
Many of us know that this is true of puppies, when we make room for them in our already busy lives, that it is worth it because of the joy and companionship they bring into our lives. And if finding room for a puppy in your heart, and giving him room to grow can change your life, just imagine what happens when you let the baby Jesus in at Christmas – the Son of God, the Prince of Peace - and ask him to stay, and to grow up in your life, in your heart, and teach you to love
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Christmas Eve 2009
Saint Mark’s Church