24 DEC 2017
I am not sure how we would feel if we knew the absolute truth about the Christmas Story. We all have our ideas about Christmas and most of them seem to relate to childhood memories, conflated stories of the birth of Jesus, and a lot of media blitz. Say Christmas to me and I think of fir trees, lights, snow, presents, pajamas, and very good smells. You have your own visions. They are memories, good things, bad things, and sometimes the oddest thing. Every Christian has them and has their own ideas about the story and many who are not at all Christian have their own thoughts. For some it is a welcome day off work. When I was a resident doctor it was seen a as a good day to be on call because things were quiet. People tried really hard not to die or come to the hospital on Christmas.
So, we all have those memories: some are nostalgic, some are unpleasant. For many Christmas is blue. It is a time that brings up memories of someone dear to them who has died or a time when their own sadness or sorrow is brought front and center. My father, who died a few days after Chritmas in 2008, told about spending Christmas 1944 in Germany, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. I actually found a memoir written by a fellow member of his Tank Destroyer Battalion. Christmas that year was spent in in the basement of a building in a small town in Germany while mortar fire was all around. They tried to make peanut brittle at some point and it was so cold they broke the plate to get the peanut brittle off. Always for him Christmas had an element of suffering and death and extreme cold. But it also had gratitude and an appreciation of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary. War never made any sense to him.
But I have news for all of you: Christmas is not memories. Yes, it brings up these things but first and foremost Christmas is about an event so marvelous and extraordinary we do everything we can to avoid thinking about what it really means. Yet Christmas is the epitome of ordinary. In fact it is less than ordinary. It is about someone born in a place much worse than average and in a place so far out of the way it was almost off the map. It is about someone born to people who were poor nobodies with nothing much at all going for them. Bethlehem was a backwater, as was Nazareth. The God of the Jews was in the temple; the god of Rome was named Tiberius and he was in a palace. Mary apparently gave birth with no one around but Joseph. God came into the world in an almost unheard-of place yet in the only way that humans come into this world. It is like an old home movie shot with an 8 mm camera.
Think about it. This was a time when far too many women died in childbirth and a first birth is often the riskiest. I doubt that Joseph was an experience midwife. But this is how it happened. God came to us in the most unimaginable way. God came because May said “yes”.
Have you ever said yes to something that you only vaguely understood? I think about Mary a lot. What if she had not said yes? A very wise 5-year-old once told a priest I know, who asked the same question, that if Mary had said no God would have accepted that and found someone else.
So we have this baby, a tiny helpless baby like each and every one of us was at one time, in a manger. A manger is a place where animals take their food. This child would grow up and say to us, “this is my body, given for you” and “this is my blood, given for you”. Even at the very beginning God was at the place where all of creation comes to be fed.
And thus God came to us, in a place not even on the map and in a form that is the ultimate in helplessness. How awesome is that?
And once Jesus is born incredible things start to unfold. Angels, lights, and all sorts of wonderful things happen. These are not stage effects!! Who is the first to notice? To whom does God make this great announcement. Not the priests or the Levites, not even the more respected townspeople. Not to the Caesars or kings or queens. Rather it is the shepherds who first get the news. Maybe it is like children first seeing a great event, or an announcement reaching the poorest people in the farthest place before anyone else sees or hears. God is bringing the Good News to the people who need to hear it and feel it.
Tonight we celebrate; we have brought out everything for a feast day. We have lit the candles and we sing songs so familiar to many of us that we do not need to open the hymn book. These are good things; things of great joy. I pray that all of you sleep well and that all the children experience the miracle of the birth of God’s only begotten child. But beware: familiarity can make us forget the incredible and singular nature of what we are celebrating. So tonight be joyful, think of all the good things and smells and friends and food. The angels said rejoice! They called all the common folk, and maybe even the sheep and the goats and the cattle and the chickens, to see this incredible sight. Be with friends or family in any way you can and celebrate. But remember the ordinary and remember that the message of Christmas, while anything but ordinary, is revolutionary and straight from God.
I was recently reminded of this poem by Howard Thurman, one of the greatest theologians and prophets of the 20th century.
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.
Go, my friends, find, feed, release, rebuild, bring peace, and, especially, make music.
Merry Christmas and God bless us all.