a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve
I don’t suppose any of us were hoping we’d be celebrating our Lord’s birth this way this year. I remember that during the first few weeks of the pandemic I was sure everything would be back up and running by the fall, if not earlier. Like in that final scene in “White Christmas,” I at least held out hope that the curtain would miraculously go up on Christmas Eve and reveal a world uninhibited by a coronavirus.
Oh, how naïve I was! Maybe some of you were, too. Christmas, in large part, seems to be all about closeness, sharing food, and singing together. And now here we are with very little of that. Perhaps we should have prepared better, been more sober-minded, but Christmas is about hoping and believing, right?
It has been nine months of a strange, fearful, and tumultuous lifestyle because of the coronavirus. And I don’t know about you, but for me all the conflicting sources of information have made it worse. Finding which media voices to trust is as difficult as staying on top of the ever-changing flow of data. Throw in a Presidential election and rocky administration change, threats of foreign influence and pretty much everyone is wondering: Who should I listen to? What’s reality? Voices of the left? The right? Somewhere in the middle? What is the middle? Is there a middle?
Tonight there are no sides, no spin. The news comes straight down from above, delivered by God’s messengers. And the message is a wonderful, glorious truth: God declares humankind essential. God has always felt that way about us, of course, from the beginning at creation when God declared us very good, and even through the struggles and wanderings of his people Israel.
But tonight it becomes clear to the world in a new way. Looking past all our failings, our contagious fallibility, God shares our space and says, “This isolation is over. This sin that separates us, keeps you quarantined from my peace and goodwill? It is gone,” God says in the birth in Bethlehem. “You and I are going to be together.”
Perhaps never before—in the last century, at least—has the message of this night met a world so fearful and angry and broken. It’s like the hopes and fears of all the years are met in us tonight as we listen from our cars, masked in the church, or on a screen at home. Madeleine L’Engle, the writer of the beloved children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, was a person of faith, and over her life wrote several poems about Christmas. She composed one of them, called “Into the Darkest Hour,” in the 1990s, but upon reading it we might think it is about 2020. The first stanza goes:
It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.
We are living with a “horror in the air”—we’re afraid we’ll breathe it, share it. Don’t sing a Christmas carol with people…there’s a horror in the air! And there are echoes of war—trade wars, civil wars, not to mention about wars within our own hearts about how we go forward. And yet as Mary and Joseph go down to Bethlehem, driven there by a ruler who wants to count, count, count the people, it should occur to us: how we’re living now is exactly how God expects to find us. How we’re living now—more aware than ever in our lifetimes of our mortality, more aware than in a long time of our disunity, more aware of the challenges of trusting one another—is precisely the humanity God love and has in mind to save. And so into this darkest hour we know God comes. We may not be able to sing or celebrate it like usual, but Jesus is nevertheless born.
He is most wonderfully here.
Yes, it’s a stripped-down, more-anxious-than-usual Christmas, but something truly sublime happened here last week as we pulled together a Live Nativity outdoors. It happened on the night we should have had a children’s Christmas musical. We had never tried to put something like this together before, much less while maintaining social distance for people seated in their cars and broadcast over the radio:“Breaker-breaker-one-nine, we got a pregnant lady coasting into Bethlehem.”
In all honesty, we weren’t that clever. We didn’t need to be. We simply had families from the congregation sign up on-line for the different roles and we read the Christmas stories straight from the Bible. We had a Holy Family, including a real baby Jesus, some shepherds, four angels, plus an archangel who stood on the roof, and we added in the magi from Matthew’s gospel just to make it more interesting. We even had an extra set of shepherds show up if we needed them.
To my knowledge very few of these families really knew each other or had met before that night. Our preparations were minimal. All we really did was tell each group where they were supposed to start and where they were supposed to end up. We did a very quick run-through and then they went and put on costumes. Twenty minutes later they did it for real in front of more than 100 people.
And in spite of all my anxiety, nothing went wrong. It would have been OK if something had, but nothing went wrong. Nobody’s timing was off, no one had to be coaxed into their role, and my favorite part was the fact that the very moment that the narrator was speaking the words, “Mary wrapped her first born son in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger,” our Mary actually bent overand put her son right into our manger. Like we had practiced for days.The whole thing went off without a hitch.I am positive something similar to this happened at churches throughout the world.
It occurred to me, as the cars were filing out of the parking lot, as the characters were hanging their costumes back up, and Saturn and Jupiter, mysteriously drawn together, were appearing in the sky over the columbarium like a Bethlehem star, with what other story on earth could people do this? What other story can take total strangers, hand them basic props like bathrobes, tinsel halos, and plastic crowns, and essentially say, “Do your thing”? Almost everyone knows the shepherds are terrified. Almost everyone knows the angels show up, flap their wings, and calm them down. People know the magi kind of wander around and then at some point kneel down with gifts. Mary and Joseph don’t need to speak. They just need to act tenderly with one another and smile at their baby.
The story, you see, just carries us. This good news pulls everyone in. It doesn’t need embellishment, it doesn’t really need rehearsal. It definitely doesn’t need complexity. It uses common people, and most everyone fits that bill. There are people, of course, who don’t know this story. For whatever reasons they aren’t aware yet how silently the gift is given, but they also don’t know how easy God has made it for them to play a part too. At a Christmas when all we really have is the story, we see it’s enough for God to carry us through.
When mothers in the middle east give birth, they wrap the child in nothing more than bands of cloth, or swaddling clothes. Whatever they have on hand. Mary does this. It is a sign of maternal care. Swaddling keeps babies warm and makes them feel safe. It also makes them easy to carry. Who is swaddled this year? I think God has swaddled us. I believe we find ourselves wrapped up in little more God’s story of love and relying on God’s hands to carry us through. And it’s enough.
For it is a story, you may recall, that takes us from the swaddling clothes of the manger to the clothes that are divided by casting lots as this Jesus hangs on the cross. It is a story that does not turn back from any darkest hour, not even death. In Jesus, God takes our various terrified and wandering lives, pulls us in, and tells us where we end up and where we end up is at the heart of his love. We are essential, remember? Even as he dies, he dies for us. Because of Jesus, the best gift of all, we will be carried through to life forever with God.
And so on this unusual night of peace and glory, when all we have is this wonderful story, here are the things marvelous things we ponder:
As the holy pair wait for room to deliver their child, we know God is with every patient waiting on a hospital room or ICU spot.
As the shepherds are startled from their fields we realize God values every health care worker and law enforcement officer who has had to work through the night this year.
As the angel insists on making known tidings of great joy to a fearful audience, we know God is with every public health official and vaccine developer who has struggled to get across messages of health and safety this year. God sees every teacher who has struggled to share tidings of math and reading through a computer screen.
As Joseph and Mary travel far from their home in Nazareth, separated from family in such a tender and vulnerable moment, we trust God recognizes every grandparent and loved one and nursing home resident who celebrates this day alone.
As Jesus finds himself born in Bethlehem simply because the governor issued a census, we see that God knows what it’s like to counted by the powers that be, as another data point for some chart somewhere. And so God comes alongside everyone who’s received a positive COVID test, mindful of the stigma they are now just a number on a graph.
As the whole scene likely takes place in the open air, and on a road trip, and definitely not in heated sanctuary, we know God sees everyone who’s been kept away from gathering in their churches this year.
We’re all in the story, somehow, you see. Swaddled, wrapped up, kept safe in this dark night…and ready for God to pick us up and take us ahead, and Jesus is most wonderfully here.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.