Merry Christmas! Today, I am celebrating the feast of Jesus Christ’s birth with the people of St. Stepehen’s, Laurelhurst. Recently, I challenged myself to tell the Christmas story more dynamically, so here is my attempt.
Prayer for Christmas
God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Christmas Readings from the Bible
Isaiah 9:2-7 (“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”)
Psalm 96 (“sing to the Lord, all the whole earth”)
Titus 2:11-14 (“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”)
Luke 2:1-20 (Angels and Shepherds speak of Christ)
“He did what?” I imagine the Blessed Virgin Mary saying this to Holy Anne, one bright morning. “Joseph is really a lovely man. I know you’ll like him.” “Your father has arranged for a spring wedding.” “But, mother…” And so on. The Bible gives us very little in the way of details, though tradition suggests that Joseph was older, perhaps on a second marriage, while Mary was in her late teens. They must have been very special people, to do what they did, to raise Jesus, so I imagine they knew and loved one another soon after they met, though you never know; perhaps they grew into their love. In any case, Mary was nervous and Joseph was nervous. People did not date – probably did not socialize. They just might meet one another before the engagements. Engagements were made by the groom and the father of the bride, or perhaps both sets of parents. Mary, no doubt, took things in stride. She was that kind of person. A friendship was born. I’d like to think there was a romance as well. Joseph with expectations from his first marriage, Mary not knowing what to expect, both discovering the other and finding themselves better for the relationship. Still, it was a tenuous thing, this new couple. So this is Mary, nervous and feeling somewhat alone, when an angel appears. Perhaps Gabriel came as a flash of blinding light, an angel with wings and a halo, or as a strange man greeting Mary on the street. Again, the Bible doesn’t say. I’m not sure which would be most frightening. And again, I imagine Mary saying, “He did what?” My favorite image of the annunciation was painted by Jan van Eyck in 1435. The angel Gabriel has beautiful rainbow wings and such a look of kind mischief on his face. I cannot properly describe it: all the wisdom and wit and compassion in the world. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” The implausibility of this has worn off in the past thousand years. A virgin birth was no more expected 2000 years ago than it is today. She could have said “Right….” Instead, showing both humility and curiosity – and perhaps a bit of awe, she said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” I must confess, the answer would not have satisfied me. Perhaps it did not satisfy her. “God will breath on you, and the shadow of God’s power will fall on you, and you will have a child.” To call it a miracle is to gloss over the sheer magnitude of it. God breathed on Mary, just as God breathed on the mud to make Adam. The truth broke into the world, that day. Something more real than we are, something eternal and dependable and kind, the very thing that holds up the order of creation. God acted. Nor was this insignificant to Mary, emotionally. I worried about that for a bit, but no, the angel announces first, and then Mary accepts God’s proposal: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary participated. And the world was changed. There was a hope that had never been there before. God became human in that moment. God, the will and order of the universe, was also and for the first time, fully present with us, as one of us. That probably didn’t make it any easier for Mary. What would Joseph say? How could she live with a child that was not from her husband? Who would believe her? Mary was perplexed. It is one thing to be told your child will be the living God, the savior of Israel. It is another to figure out what you’re going to do with an unexpected pregnancy. Let us switch scene to Joseph finding out about Mary. I imagine he was a little less calm about the whole thing? “She’s pregnant?” He was a kind man. For both of their sakes, he wanted to end the engagement quietly. It made no sense to him to raise someone else’s child, but there was no reason to call undo attention to Mary, no matter what kind of trouble she’d gotten herself into. Again, an angel appeared, telling Joseph to be unafraid, for Mary’s child would be the Son of God, and God who is with us. Joseph too, was perplexed, but he had faith, in God, in the angel, and in Mary. He would marry her, anyway. Our hope is based on the decisions of two people, who had no idea what was going on. They asked questions. I’m not talking about unquestioning obedience; I’m talking about struggling to get things right while being utterly confounded. If anything, we are in a far better place to deal with the mystery than they were. We have a better understanding of human reproduction. We have a better understanding of physics and medicine and custom. We have two thousand years of commentary to draw on. And yes, we’re not caught in the middle of the mess. They were. Our hope is based on two people, who had reason to doubt each other, and fear their situation, even their sanity, I suppose. They chose hope. And so, we have hope. They chose one another. And so, we have Christ, God with us. Joseph and Mary set out for Bethlehem. Their own troubles were not enough. We have no idea what their families thought about the whole thing. We have no idea whether Mary’s parents believed them. We have no idea whether Joseph’s parents believed them. It was a mess. Add to this, a foreign occupation. Israel was under new management. For two generations, Roman legions had been tromping around, sacking cities and messing with internal affairs. Even that was fraying, as the puppet King, Herod the Great, died, dividing the land into three separate countries. Shortly after, Rome marched in and took direct control, installing a prefect or governor. It’s not clear when Jesus arrived, during the reign of the puppet king, during the breakup of the kingdom, or after the Romans had officially moved in. In any case, it was a mess. The Emperor in Rome wanted to know how many subjects he had, so that he could tax them properly. This was extremely unpopular and small scale rebellions were common. This was the situation as Joseph and Mary set out from home, pregnant, confused, and still getting to know one another. When they arrived, they could not even find a room to stay in, they had to sleep with the animals. This is kinder than it sounds; the animals were warm and dry, but it would still be a serious inconvenience for a pregnant couple. God was not born into a palace, or even a hotel. God was born into our world, a place of discomfort and confusion, doubt and challenge, in a war-torn land, to parents who barely knew each other. That should be normal for Christians, strange as it sounds. We are a people who find hope, living in confusing, dangerous times. We are a people who look for love and compassion in the faces of strangers. We are a people who listen for angels – who may come in a flash of light, or meet us on the street. We look for the coming kingdom in strange people, who never meet our expectations, but still live in faith, hope, and love. This was the political turmoil faced by shepherds, disreputable, poor, possibly anti-social souls, who caught the night shift with their sheep. These were not the cream of Judean society. Nor would they have been inclined to trust authority, As they were the last and least. An angel appeared suddenly, popping out of the darkness surrounded by light. Again, I cannot say if it looked like an alien, a flying man, or just a very well dressed, glowing stranger. Does it matter? It was a person of power such as they had never seen. And the angel said, “Do not be afraid! I have good news!” Funny how they always start that way. “Do not be afraid.” Apparently, fear is the normal reaction. “A savior has come to you. A Messiah. And you will know him because he is a baby lying in a feed trough.” “Um. Excuse me, could you repeat that?” Or perhaps they were so surprised that they couldn’t speak. We think we are wiser now, more savvy to the ways of the world. Perhaps we are. We have physics and telecommunications and twitter. But on that night, these shepherds knew something known only to a few. And it was utterly beyond their comprehension. It was, I think, more miraculous to them, more amazing, more unbelievable. When suddenly the sky opened to reveal more angels than they could count, singing praises to God, and wishing peace to everyone on Earth. I don’t know about you, but if was visited by a stranger who wrapped up with “Merry Christmas to you, and all the other Earthlings,” it would give me pause. In some ways, this is the first apocalypse in the New Testament, the first unveiling of the heavenly kingdom. The shepherds saw a fraction of the heavenly court, the Divine order by which the cosmos is governed and sanctified. They glimpsed the real underneath the illusion of daily life. They saw the fulfilment of creation, just begun in Christ Jesus, born in a manger. And so, they followed the instructions of the angels. They went into Bethlehem, saw the child, and became his heralds and his choir, just as the angel host. They were worthy to spread the news and they were the first to hear it despite expectations. God calls us. Like the poor shepherds, terrified in the night; like Moses, stammering before the Ruler of Egypt; like Mary, asked to do something she never could have imagined. God calls us to come and see the coming kingdom. God calls us to visit the stables. There were quite a few barns in town. We must not assume they found Jesus right away. “Excuse me, sorry to barge in. Any chance you have the Messiah out with your livestock? No? Mind if we check anyway? It’s just that an angel said… Why no, we’re not insane. Thank you anyway. God calls us to look in the most unlikely of places, the neglected places, the difficult places, the places seemingly without hope. That is where the Messiah is. And when we find him, we have been asked to tell the world. This is not reasonable. This is messy, and complicated, and hopeful, and just a little bit mad, just a little bit anti-social. We don’t get to be the angel host, awful and wonderful, musical and heavenly. We are the shepherds, poking our head in uninvited, and saying, “Good news! God is here.” Miles away, three wise men saw a star in the sky, a point of light, impossibly distant, but telling them of wonders beyond imagining. They gathered gifts and left their home to find the wondrous child. They even stopped in with the local King, expecting to find Jesus at the very center of the world. He was not there. The King encouraged them, but secretly planned to kill Jesus when he was found. After all, if you are already a King, who needs a Messiah. If you are favored by heaven, why would you want to meet the king of heaven, and ruin a good thing? If you are not favored by heaven, but powerful in the world, how much less would you want to know the will of God? We too, can only see God if we are willing to set aside the power we think is ours by right. Whatever we own, whatever we have earned, whatever respect we think we are due, all are paltry gifts for the God who made all that is, that set the planets in motion, around stars without number. It’s been called the greatest story ever told, and this is certainly true, but it is not great because it features the Ruler of the Cosmos. It is not great because of the host of angels, the empire, wars and conflicts. It is not even great because the Son of God is pure brightness and eternal glory. The story is great because it features people like you and me, beset by doubt, surrounded by strife, struggling through a troubled world. They were overwhelmed and dumbfounded, but in that, they kept their eyes open in hope, their minds open in faith, and their hearts open in love. They reached out to one another in spite of expectations, they navigated propriety and society and taxes and empire, to bear the good news and be the good news of God with us. The story is great because Jesus Christ would be precisely this kind of person: a man, a son of loving parents, a sibling, a carpenter, a tax-payer, an outcast, a wedding guest, a rabble-rouser, a teacher, a criminal. Jesus Christ would be attacked by hunger and doubt in the wilderness. He would be befriended and abandoned. He would face his fate with fear and uncertainty, as he asked God on the Mount of Olives to give him a different task. He would be silent before Pilate, and accept his execution with peace, surrendering his spirit to God, even while asking why he had been forsaken. Jesus Christ would travel through doubt and danger, on the road to Jerusalem, just as his parents traveled, pregnant toward Bethlehem, thirty years before. They listened to God, hoped in the darkness, trusted in the danger, cried out for justice, and shared what good news they knew, knowing it would be enough. This is the Christian story, and this is the Christian mystery, that humans do these things, that God, Creator and Governor of all that is or ever will be, came to be feeble with us, to hurt with us, to love with us and love us, as we struggle with reality. This is the Christian story, that, implausible as it seems, humans do the work of remaking reality, bringing truth, justice, and peace. We aspire to the clarity of angels in our singing, but we croak along all the same, because this is the voice we have, and this is the road we walk. I love you, and I know how to love you because God loved me and because you loved me. I love that this is our story, and it is my honor to tell it on this most holy day. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” Merry Christmas!