We are invited every Christmas to come and see what God is doing in a baby come to save the world. Wrapped up in the familiar story of the birth of Jesus is a sense of expectation. God is at work – acting in the world! Come and see what God has done! And even in the familiar story, there is always something new. Amid familiar reports of angel choirs and shepherds kneeling there are words of prophets who announce that God is doing a new thing – that God is always doing a new thing and we are to expect that and watch for it. Keep watch for unexpected insights! Listen for voices with new messages! We don’t want to miss what God is doing here and now.
Into this world, (the mess) God came…
It doesn’t take a particularly acute social commentator to conclude that the world is a mess. But then, it has been a mess since the beginning of recorded history. Admittedly WHAT is messed up, WHO messed it up, HOW it got messed up and WHEN the messing up happened are rather flexible factors. But that the world is a mess, far from perfect, far from fair, and far from peaceful is not really in question.
And into this mess, God came in person. It is into the real mess that God comes, that God acts. Sometimes in quiet and subtle ways. Not like an avenging hero to send the destructive forces into outer space. Not like a divine clean-up squad with a cosmic equivalent to a Mary Poppins finger snap to “tidy up the nursery.”
Christ came to bring joy, but that joy is in the middle of a joyless world. Our world is torn by sin and broken by poverty, assaulted by war and violence and oppression and pain and injustice. So for God to come and live among us – in the middle of all that, can be a bit hard for us to accept.[i]
Our Christmas beliefs are anchored in this fundamental statement that God came to live with us in the messiness of our reality. Christ was born in a poor corner of the world to parents who lived in fear under Roman domination. Judea was considered of little value except as a strategic military outpost to control trade routes. The ancient equivalent of the Entebbe base in Uganda where innocent looking prop planes fly surveillance missions.[ii] Judea was a poor staging base for a major world shift from our own perspectives. As Judas sings in Jesus Christ, Superstar:
Every time I look at you I don't understand… Now why'd you choose such a backward time And such a strange land?
If you'd come today You could have reached a whole nation Israel in 4 BC Had no mass communication[iii]
Hard to understand why then, why in that way. Add to that -- the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, as explained in the gospels, were also a bit of a mess. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem in the late stage of her pregnancy to register as required by the government. And with the influx of travelers, guest rooms were full. Here’s one of those new things we learn at Christmas – sometimes the words translated into English don’t exactly mean what is meant in the original languages. In the gospel of Luke, the word that is frequently translated as “inn” is kataluma. The translation to “inn” is a bit odd here. It isn’t used when the Samaritan takes the man beaten and left for dead to an inn. This isn’t the word used for the place where he was taken, which probably was an inn or public hostelry. The other place that we find this word in the scriptures is when Jesus sends two disciples to find a kataluma –a guest room – for them to celebrate Passover, which becomes the Last Supper. It is possible that, contrary to the interpretations of countless Christmas pageants, there never was a mean innkeeper who turned a very pregnant Mary out in the cold. Bethlehem was very small and only two hours’ walk from Jerusalem, so there probably were no inns. Most travelers would just travel on to Jerusalem. Instead, there would have been guest rooms in private houses that were used for visiting family or used for travelers in bad weather – and those were already full with the surge of travellers. They most likely went to the home of a family member who sheltered them during the census. Let’s understand this:
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David's house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David's city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.
So Mary and Joseph were probably staying with the family in the main room with the homeowner and their family. If this is correct, then Jesus was born in the main room of the house where the family lived.[iv] In humble houses of this time there was one main room where the family lived. If there were enough resources, they would build an attached guest room for visitors. The main room had two levels. The lower level, a foot or two lower than the rest of the house was where they kept livestock in the cold months. The livestock were safer and provided a bit of warmth to the family. There would be a manger area next to the step. It was here that the women of the family would give birth, in the middle of the house, close to the manger area so that the newborn would have the comfort of the straw. Listen to this unfamiliar thought: Jesus, the Child of Promise, was born in the middle of the house in the midst of the “smelly hay, snorting animals, anxious onlookers, and into the tenderness and love of the family circle.”[v] He was born just like the other children in the family and placed where they were placed. Not set apart in a guest room – but into the center of the home and family. Into this world – mess and all.
Gift of Godself -- Love Came Down at Christmas
The central claim of Christmas is that God became human flesh and lived with us – “Pitched a tent in our neighborhood” is Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of the text from John’s prologue. God became incarnate, embodied in human form or wrapped in human flesh, as one poet puts it. Jesus became God’s messenger to humanity by living among us and revealing God’s love. And he came into a dark and hope-thin world to show us love and grace, healing and peace.
This is part of what St. Paul calls “foolish and scandalous” nature of the gospel – that God would bear the restrictions of human form. It’s part of what some people have objected to as the “earthiness of Christianity.” God became flesh so that we could understand love. It’s a paradox – and a bit hard to believe. We might find ourselves struggling to accept the miracle of Christmas. Like Flannery O’Connor’s character Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, we expect the world to be a place “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.”[vi] God taking on human form is a bit hard for us to wrap our minds around. After all, those with power and might in our world don’t often relinquish it voluntarily.
But if we can imagine that God came to earth in human form – that might just change how we view life. It might change how we see others, if we look for a touch of Christ in others. It might change how we understand our responsibility for the lives of children born into poverty if we consider that these were the circumstances into which Christ was born.
That’s another part of the story, but we need to visit it tonight to understand. God is still coming into the world. God still appears in unlikely places, in unexpected moments and circumstances. God still interrupts lives as God did 2000 years ago in Palestine. But just as there were many people who slept through that night in Bethlehem completely unaware of the birth of the Promised One, so many of us miss the signs of God’s coming among us now. We can choose to ignore the acts of God – after all, they are rarely expected, popular or convenient. God does still tend to challenge the systems that make our lives predictable.
OR we can choose to live open to God’s new possibilities, to be open to God’s presence among us. We can be as daring as those shepherds in the field who, (slightly whiny Eeyore voice) contrary to their usual evening activities, went into the city of Bethlehem in search of the presence of God. We can be as daring as those carzy star-following Magi who left home and country following the signs and portent that they saw -- (hesitate as if questioning) in the sky(?) in search of a different kind of king. OR even be as bold as the followers of Jesus through the years who didn’t just come to worship a baby at the manger, but allowed him to be the star they followed all of their days living according to the love and mercy that they had glimpsed in this Promised One. God came to live among us, pitching a tent in our neighborhood to change it. To heal, to raise us to life, to show love and mercy to all. ALL. That’s why God left power to become powerless. To show love.
This Manger is for the world – the whole world. It is for ALL people, not just a privileged few. It’s not just for you; not just for me. It’s not just for magi and world leaders – it’s also for shepherds. Nor is it just for those who gather to celebrate his birth. The child of promise wasn’t born in a palace, or separated by a wall, but in a humble home where all could approach to see the child.
Because Christmas is not just for us, it is news we should share. Not just with a passing, “Merry Christmas.” We share by giving ourselves to each other – like O. Henry’s story, “The Gift of the Magi,” where the loving wife sells her long and beautiful hair to buy a chair for her dear husband’s heirloom watch. And the loving husband sells his heirloom watch to buy beautiful combs for his wife’s hair. If we can’t see past the irony to the beauty of the giving in their humble home we have missed the point. They both gave that possession which they held most dear in love.
The sharing of ourselves with those we love isn’t easy. There are challenges in all of our families: past hurts, difficult family members and awkward situations. It is even more challenging with those we don’t know. And yet, this is a part of the story too. The shepherds went to find the child, and met Mary and Joseph. The magi travelled a long way to see the child that they expected to be a king, and found a peasant baby in a feeding trough with his brave and loving parents. We find Christmas in sharing kindness with others. We even find God in strangers. We may even find that our joy at Christmas is in the giving – not the receiving.
If we want Christ to be born in our hearts this Christmas, we may need to look in unfamiliar places. We may even need to let some old things go in order to make room for the new being born.[vii] And, just like with tending a child, we can’t ignore him until it is convenient. Following Jesus is rarely convenient. Long ago shepherds and magi would acknowledge that.
St Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth century “Cistercian monk and Doctor of the Church, imagined that Christ was continually being born in all of us as we journeyed toward maturity in communion with Jesus through the Holy Spirit” towards the Eternal God.[viii] For Saint Bernard, our destiny as Jesus followers is to mature into a unique image of God, through whose face our inner life in Christ could shine through to light the world. Thomas Merton interprets this in a Christmas sermon as being that the Incarnation enables each of us “to become manifestations of Christ’s saving (salvific) presence to others.”[ix] Through our experiences of suffering and acts of mercy, Christ grows in us and we extend God’s compassion to the world.
“The mystery of Christmas therefore lays upon us all a debt and obligation to the rest of humanity and to the whole created universe. We who have seen the light of Christ are obliged, by the greatness of the grace that has been given us, to make known the presence of the Savior to the ends of the earth. This we will do not only by preaching the glad tidings of his coming, but above all by revealing him in our lives. Christ is born to us today, in order that he may appear to the whole world through us. This one day is the day of his birth, but everyday of our mortal lives must be his manifestation, his divine epiphany, in the world which he has created and redeemed.”[x]
Like shepherds of old, we must tell the story to others. Like followers of old, we must LIVE out the story. Because this manger is for the whole world.
Conclusion. This manger matters – yes, largely because God has come to live with us. And that changes everything. But also because this manger is for ALL of us. And when we share the presence of God with others, it changes us – and through us, God changes the world.
[i] Evan Drake Howard, Rekindling the Hope of the Manger, 71.
[iii] “Superstar,” in Jesus Christ Superstar. Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice / Alicia Serrat. Superstar lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group
[iv] Joe E. Pennel, The Whisper of Christmas: Reflections for Advent and Christmas,” Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1984. 88-90.
[v] Op cit, 90.
[vi] Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood. (1952)
[vii] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations. 184
[viii] Bridges to Contemplative Living with Thomas Merton, ed. Jonathan Montolado and Robert Go Toth of the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living.Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2010. “The Word Made Flesh,” Thomas Merton, 47.
[ix] Op Cit, 48.
[x] Merton’s Christmas sermon. Op Cit. 48.