Christmas Eve 2018
Christmas Eve, 2018
Donna G. Joy
Tonight we gather here to remember and celebrate a most extraordinary birth; a birth that has somehow radically changed the world; a birth that marks that moment when God and humanity come together as one in the form of a tiny child; a moment when heaven and earth unite. In preparing for tonight, as I was reflecting on the story of this birth, I found myself focusing on three questions:
- how was/is the world changed with the event of this birth?
- What is it that looked any different after this birth took place?
- And, finally, what is a faithful response to the gift of this birth?
But first, a brief recap of the story that speaks of God’s light entering into the midst of darkness and despair. The Israelite people had long expected and anticipated this birth, and now, finally, it has come. It has come within the context of an extremely dark moment in history, where a power mongering emperor has insisted that all the inhabitants of Judea must travel to their ancestral birth place in order to be registered, which means that Mary and Joseph must travel a great distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem when Mary is 9 months pregnant. Bethlehem, of course, a town which linked Jesus to King David himself.
And then, as the story goes, once they arrive, they discover that there is no place for them to stay, so Mary gives birth to her child in a stable, and lays him in a manger, which is a feeding-trough for the animals. Luke mentions this feeding-trough three times in his telling of this story, so clearly he sees it as immensely important. Probably, primarily, because it is the sign given to the shepherds as the place where they will discover this child. It is interesting to note that while we are told that the baby Jesus is placed in a container that serves as a feeding trough for animals, he – himself – becomes the food that is expected to nurture and sustain the whole human race.
Shepherds, culturally despised for all sorts of reasons taking care of their flocks, simply doing what shepherds do, all of a sudden are visited by an angel who tells them that the long awaited Messiah has been born; and instructions regarding where they will find him. Interesting that this news in Luke’s gospel is first shared with shepherds, who were considered physically and ritually unclean; despised, placed at the very lowest rung in society. Clearly, God’s messenger will connect with humanity in its weakness. Then a whole host of the heavenly chorus sing of God’s Glory and the peace that comes with this birth.
What becomes clear in this story is that there is a significant contrast between sadness, homelessness, poverty, humiliation, and filth and the extraordinary celebration of the angels, proclaiming that God’s long awaited Messiah has come. Again, the messiness of life and the glory of God become united through this birth. In the midst of profoundly humble circumstances, God, in the person of this tiny child, has entered into their midst. And this, it turns out, is astonishingly good news!
But why is this good news? Because when you think of it, at the end of the day, on the surface anyway, nothing has really changed. Mary and Joseph are still poor. They still have no decent place to stay. They still have that great distance to travel back to Nazareth, with Mary recovering from childbirth and this time with the added responsibility of a new born infant. The political unrest is still what it was before this birth occurred.
The shepherds are still shepherds. They are still despised, marginalized, frowned upon. The innkeeper is likely still too busy and overworked to recognize the profound way in which he has been visited by God. So God has entered into their midst where there appears to be great celebration and rejoicing, but it would seem that nothing circumstantially has changed.
And tonight, 2000 years later, the same is true – or at least, so it seems. We come to celebrate this Good News; we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the source of all Joy. But we do so, knowing that the world (as far as we can see, anyway) is as flawed as it was that night in Bethlehem, all those years ago. I have talked with many people over the past few weeks who have told me that this time of year is always for them really, really tough. Unemployment, illness, broken relationships, addictions, death of loved ones, financial stress are realities that people live with and the celebration of this birth does not necessarily change these circumstances. Within our global village, hundreds of thousands of people live in constant fear as the ravages of war and illness take their toll on families, communities; the security of their homes. Countless people continue to live with the ongoing consequences of natural disasters; most recently, hundreds of people dead, many still missing from a tsunami in Indonesia. The birth that we celebrate this night does not miraculously change all this; it does not necessarily change the circumstances in which we live.
So, how does the gift of Jesus make a difference? Well, the difference is more significant than anything we can necessarily see or touch. Because of his humble beginning, God’s own Son, Jesus, enters into those deep dark and difficult places and a light shines in the midst of them.
Jesus is born and through his death and resurrection, remains with all of humanity in the midst of all those times of weakness and fear and disappointment and pain. There is always that huge contrast between what often feels like the depths of despair and the heavenly chorus informing us that God is with us, offering hope. And even more importantly: In the grand scheme of eternity, everything has been made right in Jesus. Keep in mind that this birth story is recorded after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is written in light of the resurrection experience. The author knows that sadness, disappointment, even death, is never the final conclusion to anything. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, all things are made new. Because of this we know that all will be well in the fullness of time.
Christmas cards, as we all know, often display picturesque scenes of cozy houses, or churches, in the midst of snow capped landscapes and trees. Just looking at the front of such cards can offer a kind of peace, but it is important to remember that the peace of Christmas comes, not from a beautiful landscape. The peace of Christmas is the gift of God’s son coming into this world, entering into those dark and terrifying places, and shining a light in the midst of all our pain and all our fear. The peace of Christmas is the gift of God’s transforming love made known in Jesus.
So, tonight we gather and celebrate the gift of this birth. We remember that God is with us, particularly in the midst of difficult times and places. This is the Good News that we celebrate this night. Tonight, along with those shepherds of so long ago, in the midst of our busy, everyday lives we, too, receive news from the angel of this long awaited birth. And, although we may not realize it, we have all seen and heard angels appear in such ways, informing us of this birth. We have seen angels and glory shining in the eyes of those who have discovered that there really is a grace and a sense of hope that can become our strength in the midst of fear, anxiety and grief.
And there is another piece to this story that warrants our attention; that is, as Mary was given the gift of Jesus in the most difficult of circumstances, her immediate response was to serve him, to wrap him in cloth to keep him warm. He was cold, and she wrapped him in cloth to make him warm.
To accept the gift of this birth, is to also accept the responsibility that goes with it. To accept God’s love made known in Jesus is to share that love with others. Each time we respond to the needs of others we express that love in tangible ways.
You may have noticed a number of beautiful shawls hanging in the Narthex. They have been made by various people as a gift for those who are suffering, grieving, alone, or at other times for more celebratory reasons such as baptism. They have also been blessed, and are given as a reminder that through this faith community they are wrapped in God’s love, as Mary wrapped Jesus when he was small, and dependent, frail and cold. Mary responded to the gift of Jesus’ birth by serving him. We, too, are called to serve.
A few years ago MCC organized a blanket project in which blankets were made for Sudanese refugees in Darfur, so thousands of people who would have otherwise slept in the cold were wrapped in the warm of blankets made especially for them. Mary wrapped Jesus in cloth. To wrap someone in warmth is to serve the Christ child in a very real and tangible way. Many years later Jesus was to say whatever you do for others you do for me. To feed the hungry, house the homeless, sew blankets for those who need love and warmth, to create hampers for those who have nothing at this time of year… These are tangible acts of service, faithful ways of responding to the gift of this birth.
All acts of generosity on our part begin with God’s generosity toward us. God has given the gift of Jesus to us, and we are called to share that gift in tangible ways with others.
So, on this holy night, we ask ourselves, does the celebration of this birth miraculously create a perfect world? Well, the response to this question, of course, is no. We still carry with us the reality of pain: personally within ourselves, our families, and beyond those intimate places, throughout our communities both locally and beyond. But the Good News is that God is with us in those challenging places, empowering each of us with His constant presence, peace, light, and love. The story of Jesus’ arrival begins with the story of his birth, but it is important that we not keep him in the manger. This child is to grow up, sacrifice his life for us, expressing the greatest love that can ever be given. This child will rise to new life, which means that there is always hope in the midst of death and despair.
The first step is to hear the voice of the angels who speak in our world today, pay attention to the presence of this gift, and to accept it. And the second step is to allow ourselves to be transformed by it, and to reach out in tangible ways to share that gift with others.
I wish each and every one of you a blessed and truly peaceful Christmas. May the generosity of God made known in the love of the Christ child live and grow in your hearts and inspire you to share that gift in tangible ways.