Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016 || Luke 2:1-20
We all know the Christmas story so well. We’ve listened to it our whole lives: in storybooks about the animals in the stable; in Linus’s monologue in A Charlie Brown Christmas; in the pageant; in carols about angels and little towns; and in the second chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel, which I just read. We all know the Christmas story so well that we tend to crystallize it, to turn the story into a Norman Rockwell painting and hang it over our mantles.
We all know the Christmas story so well. That dastardly Caesar makes the full term Mary journey all the way to Joseph’s hometown to be registered. They trudge into Bethlehem and there’s no room at the inn. So they find a place with the animals. Jesus is born there and Mary uses the feeding trough as a bassinet. The angels appear to the shepherds, who race to town to see the baby. They proclaim what the angels told them, and Mary treasures everything in her heart.
We all know the Christmas story so well. Or do we? We assume Mary reaches full term and births Jesus after a smooth labor. But what if the stress of the long walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem caused her to go into labor early. What if Jesus were premature, and his mother’s constant ministrations were needed to keep him going in those first frightening days? With no midwife or mother or her own there, how scared must Mary have been? As a father myself, I like to think Joseph stepped up in those moments, but every new mother wants only one person around: her own mom. And Mary’s wasn’t there.
We all know the Christmas story so well. Or do we? We assume Joseph finds a clean, dry stable full of docile animals intent on watching the miracle of birth. But there’s no stable in the story. We just get a manger. We extrapolate the stable. People in those days often kept their animals indoors, especially on cold nights. Animals provided heat, after all. So perhaps the holy couple broke into someone’s back room and found the feeding trough there. Or perhaps they found a cave which shepherds used to pen their sheep. The manger is the only detail Luke gives us. We construct everything else in our imaginations. We long for a lovely scene, and thus we make it so.
We all know the Christmas story so well. Or do we? We assume Mary and Joseph trudge into Bethlehem, get turned away from the inn, and find the stable right away — all in the same fretful night. But did you notice what the story actually says? While they were there. Luke gets no more specific. “While they were there” is all he says. Perhaps it all happened fast, and Mary did birth Jesus on that first night. Our Normal Rockwell version pushes us this direction.
But what if “while they were there” comprises more time? What if they were there for days, even a week or more? Imagine how the story changes! Turned away at every place, Mary and Joseph find themselves homeless. They are internally displaced persons; their home is far away, but they are compelled to be in this city that shows them no welcome. Even Joseph’s extended family, surely still residents of Bethlehem, must have shown them no hospitality.
Growing ever more desperate, they take to wandering the streets by day, hoping against hope that someone will take pity on the obviously pregnant woman. At night, they crouch in doorways, and Joseph hides his tears of frustration from Mary. He has taken upon himself the responsibility of keeping her safe, and he is failing. Mary keeps on going, stoically bearing the weight of her pregnancy and the weight of her husband’s guilt over dragging her along.
Their desperation magnifies when Mary’s water breaks. The baby is coming and they’re not ready. This was not the plan. He was supposed to stay in a few more weeks. And Mary was supposed to be home with her mother by her side. But no. The urgency to push is upon her and she can’t fight the compulsion.
Ever the law-abiding citizen, Joseph finally allows his desperation to take charge. He breaks into a back room to get Mary out of the open air. She walks around, breathing hard. He tells her to lie down, but she says no, the walking helps. The contractions come closer and closer. Joseph is all hand-wringing and hovering. He nearly faints when the blood comes.
But Mary is focused. Her desperation has narrowed into fierce resolve. She has one goal and one goal only: to bring this impatient child into the world. A final tremendous push. Mary squats and finds the slick head and shoulders and guides her son, her firstborn, out into her arms. Panting and crying and laughing, Mary collapses into the hay with Jesus seeking her breast.
None of us knows how that night happened, but this scene of desperation turned to jubilation is where my imagination takes me this year. While they were there the child is born. The child is born not just into humble circumstances but into desperate ones. Jesus did not wait for everything to be okay, to be pristine, to be idyllic. And Jesus is just as impatient now as he was on the day of his birth.
Jesus will not wait for us to get our lives in order. Jesus will not wait until everything is going our way. Jesus will not wait until we resurface from grief or until we get sober or until we somehow snap ourselves out of depression. Just as the child came into the most desperate of circumstances, Jesus comes to us in our desperation, our darkest nights. And into those darkest nights, the Light of the World shines.
* I mentioned the content of this sermon to my spiritual director, who reminded me of this poem by Madeleine L’Engle.
* Nadia Bolz-Weber used the Norman Rockwell image a few years ago in a sermon about keeping Herod in Christmas. In it she said, “the thing is…the world into which Christ is born is not one of a Normal Rockwell painting….the world has never been that world. God did not enter the world of our nostalgic silent night snow blanketed peace on earth suspended reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered a world as violent and disturbing as our own.” Preach it, NBW!
* The star in the banner image is a glass sculpture by an incredibly talented woman in my parish, and it hangs above the altar at St. Mark’s during Advent through the season after Epiphany.