The Christmas story is such a beautiful story. Luke’s is more descriptive than Matthew’s. With angels, shepherds, individuals like Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, it is vivid. Matthew’s story of the birth is more succinct and perhaps more international with the arrival of the Magi from the East who were likely Persian.
I think that part of the reason why we are drawn to Christmas Eve services and the idea of Christmas more generally, and why we have so many who—in an ordinary year—come to both our traditional family service at 7 and our candlelight service at 10:30—is that people want to be reminded of the beauty of the story. Perhaps because the story seems so far removed from our lives, we need to be reminded that there are forces beyond our everyday lives. The presence of angels, the sense of awe and mystery surrounding so much of the story of Jesus, not to mention more generally the carols, lighting candles, decorating the tree and our homes, and the wonder of storytelling through movies or the printed word all point to enchantment and mystery. We need that!
Another way to describe the beauty of Christmas is to note that observances around Christmas are removed from our day-to-day living. Christmas takes us out of our working agendas, day planners and Zoom meetings. It takes us away from the fast meals that enable us to get to another evening meeting. Christmas suspends us from having to learn new skills we thought we’d never need to learn or having to learn how to be in our homes for hours on end. Christmas can lift us out of our loneliness and cynicism. And while not everyone is able to connect via the internet, this means of communication can bring us together in ways that we couldn’t do even 15 years ago.
In the Christmas story from Luke, the dusty roads leading to Bethlehem enthrall us; animals like camels and donkeys capture our imagination. A Roman empire, people hoping for a Messiah in the lineage of David, walking in the desert or along the Jordan river captivate us… so different from our worlds.
Or maybe not! If we turn our focus a bit, we begin to see that the world as Luke sets it out is not all that unlike our own. It was a world of taxation and a census. It was a world of poverty and wealth, of peace and disruption, of military occupation, of untimely pregnancies and things that upset life; it was an everyday world of work, learning and village life. There were hopes and fears, joys and disappointments. Maybe the specifics were different in Luke’s world, but we face similar feelings of uncertainty, happiness, fears, joys, alienation, loneliness, community, hopes and dreams.
The Christmas story happened to ordinary people living regular lives. The mystery and wonder broke through to shepherds who may have been grumbling about having to spend another night out with the sheep while some were asleep in their beds. Hope broke into the lives of Mary and Joseph who were, at the same time, disrupted by a census that took them away from home, not to mention a pregnancy and promise that was rather uncertain.
What Luke does, in telling the Christmas story, is to weave together the mundane and the extraordinary, the every-day and the incredible, the humdrum and the miraculous. They are not separated but all tied together because God isn’t the God of only the miraculous, the awesome, the wondrous, the extraordinary. Through the Christmas story, Luke reminds us all that God is active in this everyday world and that the arc of peace, justice, and wholeness is here and now.
So, maybe on a subconscious level at Christmas time, we seek that reminder that God is part of this world, that the sacred spark of light is alive among us. Especially this year we need that reminder! The Christmas story challenges the notion that God’s activity is facilitated only by spiritual institutions or by mystics and saints… neither of which is true. Mary and Joseph weren’t particularly special. The shepherds were at the bottom of the social strata. It was a manger—a feeding trough—that sufficed for a crib in a barn full of smelly working animals. Into this messiness and usualness, angels declared God’s presence, and the Christ came.
The Advent of God in Christ into the world was not just in Luke’s world of Herod and Caesar, taxations and feeding troughs, stables, farm animals, and sheep herding fields. The Advent of God in Christ into the world is God’s yes to the world in every age and time with other Herods and Caesars.
I was reminded recently of a mystic in the church who lived in the 14th century, Meister Eckhart; he said of the Christmas story and the intent behind it, “What good is it if Mary gave birth to the Holy Child 1400 years ago and I do not give birth to the Holy Child in my own person and time and culture? . . . We are all meant to be mothers of God.” I’ve heard preachers speak of giving birth to God in our time and place. I’ve said it myself as a reminder that the holy is around, within and through us.
So, let the wonder of Christmas elevate us into the place of awe and hope, but let it also root us to the ground of struggle and suffering; and may the wonder remind us that the Christ is birthed in us, too. We make manifest God’s presence in our ordinary lives and beings and are made extraordinary in the process.
On this night and for the next little while, we are reminded that our usual lives are shot through with divine light, a new hope for a new life to be birthed into the world—our worlds and the wider world in which we live. Take heed! The birth of Christ is your experience right now and right here. Amen.