Here we are, Christmas 2020. A Christmas – and a year – most of us could never have imagined.
So many of the rich traditions that have made this holiday celebration so meaningful through the years will have to be abandoned or adapted this year. No flying or driving to go and see family, no airport pick-ups or watching from the window as the cars pull up bringing with them family and friends from near and far. No parties filled with laughter and food and drink. No live theatre and concerts filled with the sounds of the season.
And while we do gather this night together, it’s not quite the same. We need to acknowledge that. There isn’t the same buzz as being gathered together in the church, holding our candles in the dimly lit sanctuary while our voices blend together singing “Silent Night.” There will be no hugs and loud shouts of Merry Christmas in the busy hallways of the church as folks head off into the night and continue their Christmas celebrations.
I grieve all of that.
And then I remember another disappointment. In the time of her delivery, Mary birthed Jesus in an animal shelter. There was no room at the inn. She wrapped the baby in swaddling clothes. This was her Christmas. Alone with her husband, the time of her birthing came while on the move from threatening forces. We tend to romanticize that – but it was less than ideal. What gives us license to romanticize it is this: on that night, Jesus arrived. What followed would make that moment precious to us all.
But we can’t forget his own coming was fraught with vulnerability. His coming was the emblematic representation of simple and humble circumstances.
This Christmas will be a bit like that for all of us. Less than ideal circumstances will challenge us to find the joy in the coming of the Christ child. Like Mary, we will have to do with rejoicing in what we have, forgoing the comforts to which we have grown accustomed, and experiencing the joy of the moment in spite of present challenges.
The event we celebrate tonight was not an organized, glitzy event. No one involved even knew much about what was to take place. It was an imperfect, disorganized and a pretty messy event. There was no feast on fine china, no crystal goblets and no champagne. For the birth of Jesus, no invitations were sent and no reservations were made. It didn’t appear on Instagram or YouTube or as a Facebook update minutes later. There’s no viral Tik Tok video.
The way Luke tells the story, Mary and Joseph had been traveling for a week or so, on foot from Nazareth, Joseph’s home town. On a dark night, outside of Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem, Mary, who was pregnant, went into labour. They tried to find a room in an inn, but it was full.
Thankfully, the innkeeper was not insensitive to what was about to happen, room or no room, so they offered the travelers some shelter from the cold, a resting-place in the stable, out back. There, Mary, surrounded by the smells and sounds of stable animals gave birth to a baby. We can imagine Joseph helped to deliver the baby in the dark night. They wrapped him in the customary manner, with bands of soft cloth, swaddling clothes, and because there was no other cradle, they placed him in the animal’s feedbox, a manger.
The way Luke tells it, it was a birth with a threshold of exceedingly low expectations. Chances are something could have gone wrong on that night and hope might have been lost forever. But within this story, is the story of God coming into human history. That tiny baby, Luke maintains, represents the beginning of a phenomena of hope and love that countered the rule of that time and gave the people a new vision of their own humanity -and divinity. Those early writers and other witnesses imagined that in that moment of low expectation and near miss, something unaccountably remarkable happened and life was turned toward the new and the hopeful again.
And how utterly wonderful that in the year that has been 2020 we are reminded once again of a story that is remarkable in its attempt to tell us about who we are and how we might expect to live and move and have our being while we are on this earth.
In our story, Luke imagined that God came into human history as a poor, innocent, homeless baby born into a world where there was more than enough cruelty, abuse, violence and war. A world sharply divided between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. In short, Luke imagined glory in the lowest, a God of small things, a God who was made manifest in the extraordinary, ordinary events of human life like birth and death.
Luke’s world was not unlike the world we live in today. A world that knows violence and oppression, terror and injustice; a world in which God is present to us in extraordinary and ordinary ways.
Christmas reminds us that God comes into the world of injustice and human suffering and violence, not as a conquering hero or as the ruler of a mighty empire. God entered the world through a humble human event, as a baby born in a stable. God is present and made real to us in the midst of our borning, our living, our dying. God is not off in a galaxy somewhere, remote, removed and distant. God is real, intimate and caring, as close to us as the next human being and as deep within us as our own breath.
This Christmas, expect God’s coming at any time, in anything that is beautifully and simply human: in the birth of a baby, through the extraordinary efforts of ordinary people working for peace and unity rather than discord and hate, to refugees finding welcome in a new country to call home and the partnerships created with these families in the name of love and friendship, in frontline workers in full PPE working in extraordinary conditions and still giving humanity in the most desperate of situations, in a handwritten card expressing care and goodwill, and wherever love is shared and hope is passionately expressed, and compassion given and received.
I may have started out this season with some lament and low expectations. But secretly, I have very high ones for who we are and how we can live on this sacred land, the world. I hope that even in what looks like a very different Christmas for us all, that we hear the invitation to open our hearts and our lives to the love of God born among us again this holy night. I hope that we will pray for peace and work for it in the name of and for the sake of the Prince of Peace. I hope we will remember and pray for those in need, those whom we do not know, those who seem different from us, those who challenge us in such ways that will not remove us from them, but help us to see embodied in their lives, the holy, and the possible.
That is my Christmas 2020 wish.
In this very different kind of Christmas, perhaps we can do that which Mary found the courage to do. We can rejoice in Christ’s coming no matter what. Deprive us of time with family and friends; deprive us of the choirs of angels; deprive us of the comforts of certainty and expected health – and yet we will rejoice. There is power in knowing that the incarnation of love not only wasn’t impeded by the circumstances, but thrived in the midst of the pain, sorrow and suffering of humanity.
The Christ child whom we worship will be as ever present to us as in past years when circumstances warranted happier occasions. But our love for this child, and for each other, will not be diminished. It is that love after all is said and done, that is the cause of our delight.
May you make this night, this Christmas, this season – your own witness to the ordinary and extraordinary joys God gifts us even in this time.
Christmas blessings to you and yours. Merry Christmas. Thanks be to God. Amen.