December 24, 2014 7:00 p.m.
- Christmas Eve 2014
- Mary Holmen
This story is so familiar. We’ve heard it every year for as long as we can remember. The nativity has been presented for centuries and millennia on cards, in painting and sculpture, in music, and in scenes like the one outside this church building. Some churches present a living nativity or pageant each year. The story has become imprinted on our consciousness. We can feel we know it so well that we may in fact gloss over some of the details. So let’s take a few minutes tonight to remember some of those details. Let’s strip away the layers of tradition, the children’s pageants, and the sentimentality that sometimes attaches itself to this story, and let’s try to see it through the eyes of those who lived it. When we do, we find that the details are actually quite harsh.
This story is anchored in history and geography. It takes place during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus and during the governership of Quirinius. It moves from Nazareth in the northern province of Galilee to Bethlehem in the southern area of Judea. It is not abstract; it is not general; it is very particular. God enters human history in a specific time and place.
Bethlehem is an insignificant town in the hill country of Judea, a backwater of the empire. It wasn’t exactly a promotion to be sent there as governor. Joseph is compelled to travel to his ancestral town because the emperor has ordered a census to be taken. Let’s unpack this simple sentence. This is an occupied country and an oppressed people. The priesthood of the temple and the puppet Jewish leaders have thrown in their lot with Rome, to their advantage and the people’s further oppression. The purpose of the census is to establish an accurate record of the population so that even more taxes can be wrung from a people who are already staggering under the heavy hand of the Roman Empire. The pagan Roman occupiers and overlords are hated by the people whom they have conquered. Moreover, a census is in direct violation of Jewish law. The Romans are rubbing the people’s face in their occupation. Open revolt will be prevented only by the efforts of the high priest of the day. Joseph obeys the order because he has no choice. But I don’t imagine he went willingly or gladly.
Joseph himself is described elsewhere in scripture as a carpenter. He was probably a day labourer, hiring himself out to whoever needed his skills for a short time. Work may not have been steady and his income may have been uncertain. He may have been illiterate, or he may have known how to read the Torah and psalms from his early schooling in the local synagogue before he was put to his trade. Mary is young, probably not much past puberty, when she would have been formally engaged to Joseph. She too was probably unable to read or write. Girls would not have expected to go to school in her world. She is engaged but not married, and she is pregnant. In her world, that would have been grounds for stoning. These people are nobodies. They are peasants, part of the great underclass of folk living on the edge, struggling to make a living and now facing the added burden of new taxes to fund the military operations and security apparatus of the empire. The people are paying through the nose for their own conquest and oppression. Not only is Mary pregnant, she is, as the King James Version says it, “great with child”. She is due to give birth any day. Anyone who has lived that experience knows how very uncomfortable it is, even without an arduous journey of several days. The birth of Jesus happens to a couple of nobodies in a nowhere place. Why, they can’t even find a place that will take them in. They are among the homeless masses moving about at the whim of the powerful ones.
The shepherds are nothing like the cute little kids we dress in bathrobes and tea towels. They are men of the earth, rough, tough, also illiterate, living outdoors with their flocks, facing the hardships of weather and predators. They didn’t have time for the niceties of religious observance. They were looked down on by the learned folk and the city folk, and the pious folk. The announcement of Jesus’ birth was made to another bunch of nobodies.
Why is all this important? First of all, it is important to people today who are like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, people who are poor, oppressed, struggling to make a living under conditions that work against them, people who pay the price in low wages, low return for their labour, and high prices for the goods they have to buy so that others – we – may benefit from lower prices for food, coffee, chocolate, and clothing. This story is about them and for them. It says that God has taken their part by becoming one of them. Jim Brown, former warden of St. John’s College, former rector of this parish, and Old Testament scholar used to talk about God’s “preferential option for the poor”. We like to think that God is impartial, but scripture shows clearly that God is most definitely biased toward justice, toward equality, toward harmony, toward freedom from all that limits, coerces, oppresses, and prevents people from achieving their birthright as his children. The Christmas story says that God came into the world, not into a position of power, riches, or authority, but as the child of humble peasant folk, born in a barn and nurtured in a feeding trough. The Christmas story is a story of God’s solidarity with the poor of the earth. It is a story told from the bottom of human experience, a story that conveys hope and dignity.
This story is also important for us here tonight. Let’s face it, just about everybody in this gathering is enormously privileged by the standards that most of the world’s people have to live by. It is important for the same reason, because of God’s bias for justice, equality, harmony and liberation. We have a place in God’s story. We are invited to take our place at the manger alongside the shepherds, the homeless parents, and the oppressed peoples. The Christmas story reminds us that it is not because of our goodness, or our accomplishments, or our position that we stand before this Child. When we look honestly within and see our inadequacies, our difficulties, and our spiritual poverty, when we acknowledge how unable we are to reach by our own efforts the goodness to which we know we are called, then we may recognize that it is people like us who are invited to see the face of God in the image of a poor young woman and her baby in a stable. And it is people – all people, poor and rich, men women and children, oppressed and free, who are invited to share in God’s work of making the world into the garden God meant it to be and means it to be. This is the Christmas gospel, this is the good news of Christ’s birth for all ages and all peoples. Amen.