The bedtime story

(Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2008 || RCL || Luke 2:1-20)

Imagine with me the day after Jesus’ Ascension. His followers, including his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, are sharing a meal and remembering all their favorite stories about the one who had died and risen again. The two Marys are sitting in a corner talking when Mary Magdalene asks Jesus’ mother to tell her something about Jesus’ childhood. Mary ponders for a moment and then begins:

As a boy, Jesus had trouble falling asleep. No, he wasn’t afraid of the dark or of monsters under his bed. He just had too much energy. Even a day full of running up hills and building rock forts and fetching water from the well couldn’t tire him out. When he couldn’t sleep, I would sing him a lullaby and run my fingers through his matted hair. Sometimes, after a few notes, he’d say, “Not tonight, Mama. Tell me the story instead.” The story. I was always glad when he asked me to tell him how he was born because, when the story remained silent in my heart, it always threatened to transform into a dream and vanish.

“Before you were born,” I would begin, “I was engaged to your father when an angel…”

Right then, he would interrupt: “You mean Joseph, Mama.” There were no secrets in Nazareth: the town was too small. Everyone knew that Joseph and I didn’t marry until after Jesus was born. Our neighbors knew the truth up to a point — that Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ father, but anything more was speculation. We didn’t want Jesus to hear some maimed version of the events. So, when he was old enough to understand, we told him that Joseph was Jesus’ father because he loved him not because he helped make him. But you know how literal children can be.

“Yes, dear, I mean Joseph. I was engaged to him when an angel from God named Gabriel came right into my room.”

Always a second interruption: “How’d you know he was an angel, Mama?” I’m convinced that he started studying Torah because I could never come up with a satisfactory answer for him. I would say, “Well, he looked like a man, but also like his feet never got dirty or his hair never needed to be combed. More than that, though: it was his voice. When he talked, I didn’t hear his words in my ears. I heard them in my heart. That’s how I knew.” Then Jesus would roll his eyes, the signal for me to continue telling the story.

“Gabriel told me that I was going to become pregnant with you and that I should name you ‘Jesus.’ Do you know what your name means?”

“Yes, Mama. It means ‘God saves.’ ” He would say it matter-of-factly, like there was no disputing such an obvious claim. Then he’d roll his eyes again, and I would continue.

“Even though Gabriel told me what was going to happen, I knew in my heart that it wouldn’t happen if I didn’t want it to. But the moment he said your name — I just knew. I said yes. After Gabriel left, I realized how much trouble I would get into if I got pregnant. I wasn’t married yet, and I thought your father (yes, Joseph) would disown me when he found out. But he was wonderful, and we got married after getting back from Bethlehem.”

Then I would tell Jesus about the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, leaving out the part about how uncomfortable it was to travel nearly nine months pregnant. Mary, I wouldn’t mind if that part of the story would transform into a dream and vanish.

Jesus would always sit up and lean in close when I got to the part about Bethlehem. “Because of the census, all the inns were full and we had no place to go. We were passing by a barn when my water broke. Joseph didn’t know what to do. We went into the barn, and he spread his blanket over the hay. I lay down and told him to go find a midwife. He didn’t want to leave me, but I said that the labor would last a long time and that he’d be back well before anything important happened. By some miracle, the wife of the man who owned the farm was a midwife, and she came with hot water, strips of cloth and no thought to turn us out of the barn.”

One time when I was telling the story, Jesus — he was maybe seven or eight — put his hand on my arm and said: “It was a miracle, Mama. She helped you even though she didn’t know you. I wish more people would do that.”

I remember crying after he fell asleep because his words were so true and yet so infrequently accomplished. The song I sang when I was pregnant with him came back to me that night: “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Was my son really the one to bring about these things, I thought?

After telling him about the midwife coming, I would get to the part where Joseph laid him in the manger. And I would hug him tight to show him what swaddling clothes felt like.

He was twelve years old the last time he asked me to tell the story. We had just gotten back from Jerusalem, and I had had the scare of my life when he wasn’t in the caravan home. I said, “Then your father… (He had stopped correcting me by that point.) Your father placed you in the manger.” When I reached to give him the swaddling hug, he stopped me. For a moment, I thought he was getting too old to hug his mother, but then he said:

“Mama. I know…I know now why I was born in that barn. It was a miracle. It all makes sense. At the temple I was reading the prophet Isaiah.” He jumped out of bed, still talking. “Right at the beginning of the scroll, Isaiah says, ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of its lord; but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood me.’ ”

He was so excited. He pulled me up and grabbed me into his own swaddling hug. “This is what I’m supposed to do. Israel, Mama! Israel will know God because of me. And not just Israel. Everyone everywhere will know God because of me. They will understand what they’re supposed to do. I will tell them to love each other and help each other, and when they do that, they will be loving God. They will be helping me. Everyone everywhere will know God when they see me. Mama!”

We held that embrace for a long time. I remember feeling his tears soaking through my dress. The words of Simeon — that old man in the temple — sprang to my lips and I whispered them into Jesus’ matted hair: “These eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.’ ”

We didn’t finish the story that night. The shepherds coming to see us – always his favorite part as a little boy – didn’t need repeating. When he slept, his countenance was different, older. Then I remembered what Simeon told me next: “A sword will pierce your own soul, also.” I wept that night, too, when I felt a premonition of the sword that wouldn’t pierce me for twenty years yet. But let’s not talk about that now, Mary. We were both there, and I still have no words even though he came back to us, thank God.

Well, I haven’t told the story of his birth to anyone since that night after we lost Jesus in the caravan. (Yes, I can tell you that one next if you like.) But first, my Mary of Magdalene, tell me a story of my son. What was he like when his mother wasn’t around? Has Israel come to know their God? Has everyone everywhere? If you don’t tell the story, it could transform into a dream and vanish. So tell me of my son. Tell me his story. And tell everyone everywhere.

*Special thanks to Raymond E. Brown, whose study An Adult Christ at Christmas unlocked this sermon for me.