(a meditation for Christmas Eve 2015, based on Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-20)
Christmas – true Christmas – is the divine expression of infinite love. If there’s one message that each one of us takes from this place tonight, that should be it; for above and beyond everything else we attach to this season, first and foremost, Christmas is about God’s coming to us in the guise of a child. The old and familiar story that we’ve told again tonight is no less than that of the heavenly God who bends low to the earth that he might truly dwell among us. And so Christmas is truly, and quite literally, a supernatural tale; and yet, it’s also a story that is wholly and, might I add, delightfully earthy and altogether human!
To begin with, it all unfolds in, of all places, a manger… a barn, really… what I remember one little boy in a Christmas Pageant years ago referring to (and quite disgustedly, I might add) as “a dirty, smelly old cow shack!” It doesn’t get any earthier than that; and what a place for any baby to be born, much less the Son of God! And then there’s Mary and Joseph: two people who were young, impoverished and in a very real sense, anonymous; not only in the sense that they were far from home, but also far removed from any kind of societal status or power prestige: these were two people who were pretty much the last ones you’d ever expect to bring forth a Messiah into the world.
And yet, here they are on a silent, holy night, looking on in awesome wonder as “Christ the Savior is Born.”
Actually, and I mean this in the most reverent way possible, I’m thinking this is where our manger scenes get it wrong. I mean, most nativity displays usually have the baby Jesus lying at the center of a stable in a feed trough of hay, with Mary kneeling at one side of him with a look of saintly adoration on her face; very often with arms held up and palms uplifted in prayer. And then there’s Joseph; looking all stalwart and dependable without much emotion at all!
It’s a wonderful, peaceful image, and I love it… but in truth of fact, anyone who has ever experienced or shared in the experience of childbirth will tell you it’s not like that at all! Having a baby is this incredible mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration, abject fear and utter excitement; and you have to suspect what was happening with Mary and Joseph, at least at in those first few moments, was closer to breathless surprise than quiet adoration! It really seems to me as though a more accurate depiction of the manger scene would be for a truly overwhelmed Mary to be holding this little baby in her arms and wondering aloud, “What Child Is This?” while a rather befuddled Joseph stands by with what can only be described as a “goofy, new father grin” on his face!
In fact, I suspect that what Mary and Joseph were doing on that first Christmas night was taking turns cuddling that baby! They were doing all the things that new parents do; they were busy counting fingers and toes; marveling at the softness of his skin and just how very tiny Jesus was. And therein lies the true miracle of Christmas: that Jesus was not simply a ceramic figure in a crèche; no mere representation of the divine. Rather Jesus, God incarnate, was a real, live, crying, cooing, sleeping, eating baby; a tiny, helpless infant whose greatest need in those moments of his birth was simply to be held, and touched, and cared for, and loved.
And here’s the thing, friends; all of this? Yes, it’s what makes this night and our worship together a truly “wonder-full” experience and it’s what draws us yet again to the manger; but it’s also an incredible reminder that this tale of Christmas is not only Mary and Joseph’s story but also ours. As I said before, Christmas is the ultimate expression of the divine; love made manifest in the manger of Bethlehem. But just as importantly, Christmas is also found in the receptive hearts of women, men and children who would receive that divine expression as their own. For as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed in words that were both prophetic and utterly immediate: “Unto us a child is born, to us a Son is given.”
Unto us… unto you, and unto me… and the question becomes, what shall we do with this child? How shall we respond to the gift of a Son who is to be named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,” and yet is still just a baby? In a very real sense, friends, each one of us tonight are being asked to play the part of a Mary or a Joseph; in that we’re being called to birth and cradle the Christ Child in our own lives. It seems to me that like Mary and Joseph before us, each one of us has to give an answer to this gift; and how we answer determines whether what we recall tonight is simply an old story to be told once a year; or else a way of life and living that transcends each and every day!
Scripture tells us, of course, that Mary and Joseph had already said “yes” to the gift: Mary at the moment she was given the news from the angel Gabriel; Joseph later on in the aftermath of an angel coming to him in a dream. And they did so, admittedly, with only a glimmer of what saying “yes” would mean for them and the world. They could have said no; as Madeline L’Engle has noted, Mary (and Joseph, too) “was free to do so.” But they said Yes. They were obedient; they listened. And sometimes, writes L’Engle, and “when we listen, we are led into places we do not expect, into adventures we do not always understand.”
Well, the question for us tonight is if we’re listening for what God would say to us: and whether we’re ready to embrace all of what God has to give us in this gift of a Child. On this night of nights, we joyfully refer to this Child as “Emmanuel;” meaning “God Is With Us.” It’s warm, and familiar to our ears; but the larger truth of that name is that in Jesus Christ, God is not going to keep us at arm’s length; what it means is that God coming to us that he might live beside us and with us, so that God might share in everything we know in this life; that he might experience every joy and every struggle that is ours. And when we say yes to that; when we open our arms to truly receive God in the guise of a child, then we also open ourselves to a relationship of abundant life and true love.
And who knows where that adventure will lead us?
For now, it is enough for us to pause in adoration of this wonderful baby born now amidst shepherds, magi and a few random farm animals. We’ll sing songs with the angels, we’ll light candles, and then we’ll run from this place to tell good news of a “Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And in and through it all, we’ll celebrate; and well we should! But even as we do, beloved, the question remains:
What will you do about this child? How will you receive him? Will you hold him in your arms? Will you save and protect him? Will you give him your heart?
I hope and pray that Jesus, our Emmanuel, might truly be born in each of our hearts this Christmas; for that will truly make every difference for our lives and for the world.
Merry Christmas, my dear friends; and thanks be to God!
Amen, and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry