On the very first Sunday of our count-down to Christmas, I summarized the essence of Advent in “the 3 Ws of the season”: waking, waiting, and welcoming. Today, the recollection of the ancient story of Jesus’ birth will also, hopefully, wake us up once again to its timeless significance, teach us something about waiting through each character of the nativity story, and show us how these characters welcomed into their lives the discovery of a new way of relating to God.
The prophets long before Jesus attempted to wake up their nation to the promise of a better future, peace, and freedom for their people. The angel Gabriel waited for Mary’s “yes” to God’s will for her. Mary and Joseph, like all parents-to-be, first got over their shock of discovering the prospect of the baby’s impending arrival -- each of them consumed by his or her own set of worries that came with the news -- and then waited and dreamt of his birth, even as they endured the long journey from the north of Israel to its south, joined the throngs of people waiting to add their mark to the Roman census’ records, and searched for a quiet corner to deliver him. As for the shepherds, waiting was their whole job, as they camped in the fields to allow their sheep their fill of grazing, but they were the first people on earth to welcome the Incarnation.
In 12 days’ time, we will also accompany the wise astrologers as they went patiently on their lengthy journey, as they followed a new start in the sky, spurred on by a sense of wonder and awe. Alongside these main characters of the story, even the entire universe and nature seemed to be in the state of waiting, including the star in the sky, the sheep in the fields, and the animals around the manger. Our own work is, of course, to welcome God’s work into our hearts and minds, and to recognize each moment of the new birth that takes place within our soul.
But let us tonight take time to notice also what is missing, quite conspicuously, from this familiar story line: fancy meals, decorations, trees and ornaments, and family gatherings. Even the Magi’s presents represent something vastly different from the results of our own holiday shopping. The life of peasant Israelites on the outskirts of the Roman empire was simply rather irrelevant to our urban Western lives today, wasn’t it?
The story isn’t even elaborate enough for us to learn much about that kind of life. Dissatisfied with the lack of details, we work hard to fill in the gaps, and arrive eventually at the “Hallmark” image of the nativity that we know so well... but as soon as we arrive at it, we rebel against it.
First, there’s the couple, Mary and Joseph; traditionally, seen as a teenager engaged to an older man. How hopelessly patriarchal, in an age of supposedly equal opportunity: here we have a young girl being married off to an old man, tagging along across Israel to be registered with HIS family. We may also doubt the place and timing of the miracle birth itself, as we smile knowingly and think, what inn, what hotel industry in Palestine in the year 3 or so BC, far from any major Roman highways? Who would waste so much wood in that arid area to build a barn? And, the “bleak midwinter” birth on December the 25th doesn’t quite jive with the sheep being out all night with the shepherds, does it? As for the issue of the miraculous conception, I don’t need to tell you what crude things enough cynical people have said about this, while others simply see it as impossible.
Must we completely discount the ancient truths embodied in this narrative, simply based on its inconsistencies we may choose to find, or seeming irrelevance to the life of today? Must we reject its archetypal significance, so carefully and I must say, even creatively passed down by generations of wise and faithful people? No; I really hope we don't. This year, our own narratives of Christmas, 2020, will lack many of the traditional Hallmark elements we came to associate with the holidays. Will Christmas lose all significance to us if it cannot be “properly celebrated”? I really hope it won't.
I hope not, and I’ll ask you to consider this question: deep in your hearts, don’t you believe that any baby’s conception is a miracle? Is there any person in the world who is not God’s Son or God’s Daughter? And, is there any child who does not have the power to bring peace and salvation to this crazy world, in his or her own way? For what we have at the heart of this story is one woman, and her life’s purpose. She is ageless, neither married or single, and belongs to every culture. A woman who has a divine intuition, a message about her “baby” - her life’s work.
This woman’s purpose is to bring the presence of Immanuel (God with us) and Jesus (God Saves) into her world. She will have the help of her husband and the village to raise this child, but both were utterly irrelevant as to how this baby came to be - purely out of her cooperation with God, of her choice, her sense of vocation. This woman is therefore called “favored” in Hebrew and “full of grace” in Greek. Neither of those words mean “privileged”, but rather -- “chosen”.
There are no easy ways to find your own purpose, and no easy paths to take through life’s challenges and disappointments. People will judge us, and will shut us out of their “guest rooms”. But others will support us and rejoice with us, as we go about our ways of carrying God’s presence into the world around us through our beliefs and actions. The life of faith means letting go of assumptions, opening our minds to the possibility of miracles, and creating space in the guest rooms of our hearts for God’s energy to dwell in.
On this Holy Night, as we recall once again the ancient familiar story, I invite you to ponder: what is God doing in your life? What is going to be YOUR “baby” that will save the world?