Sunday, December 24, 2023

Christmas, 2023: The eternally happening birth of the Christ

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

En el nombre de Aquel que es Padre y Madre, Salvador y Espíritu Sagrado: el Uno y el Tres. In the name of the One who is Father and Mother, Savior and Sacred Spirit: the One and the Three. Amen.

Christmas blessings to you all!

Each year, as we read this story from Luke, a video plays in our minds and it goes something like this: Joseph and Mary set out on a long journey - 90 miles - to Bethlehem so that Joseph can register in the census according to his family lineage – being from the house of David. They need to find a place to stay quickly because the very pregnant Mary is about ready to deliver her baby.

In the Latin American tradition of Las Posadas, which means, “the inns,” Mary and Joseph knock on door after door seeking safe shelter for the birth of Jesus, but no one admits them. As a result, they end up in a stable, where the Messiah is born.

The video continues with the baby Jesus, wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger on top of hay, with Mary and Joseph kneeling beside him, an angel behind or above them, and above the angel is a huge star shining in the dark night pointing to the place where the newborn Savior rests.

Shepherds show up and join the animals who are quietly present, and all gaze with awe upon the Holy Family before them. In some of these mental videos, a little boy plays a drum – which is the subject of many hilarious memes on social media.

The videos we play in our minds reflect the traditions from many nations that we’ve learned and incorporated into our spiritual experiences. They aren’t literally true, in fact, much of Luke’s gospel story of Jesus’ birth isn’t literally true, but they aren’t meant to be. They are meant to teach us important lessons about this momentous event in human history and what it means for us today.

For example, in the first part of this mental video, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the census. There is “no record of a general census of the Roman Empire under [Caesar] Augustus, nor… any record of a census of Judea at the time of Jesus' birth, and Quirinius wasn’t even governor until years later, and Roman registration did not generally require people to return to their place of birth.” (Dick Donovan) Yet our story includes these things. Why?

Stories teach us important truths and one truth this story offers us is that our journey to life with Jesus involves living in the real world and doing our duty within it. It also involves a willingness on our part to go from where we are to where God is calling us to be, as tempting as it is to stay put, believing what we already hold to be true.

The story also affirms for us that as we journey, we may not be welcomed by others who don’t want to know the transforming truth being born in us. They may judge us and close their doors to us because of our life circumstances, our sexuality, our gender, or the color of our skin.

We may reach the point of feeling desperate and unfairly treated, but our faith assures us that God will provide us a place for our new birth. It may be humble, but humility is an important lesson for us all as we journey into life in Jesus, who is the icon of humility.

Another lesson is the affirmation that we don’t do this journey into life in Jesus alone. The family unit of Joseph and Mary was part of a larger family whom they went to connect with as part of their preparation. Their lineage was part of their journey.

We too are part of a larger family: the church, which is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition that is our foundation. Every step we take in this journey continues the steps our ancestors took first. We carry them in our hearts and they continue to guide us as part of the communion of saints.

Journeying into life with Jesus requires community. We don’t do this alone. One of the most destructive beliefs of the modern era, imho, is that Jesus is my personal savior, but our Scripture and tradition tell us that salvation is for the whole world.

Isaiah talks about people who have seen a great light, it's a kingdom of God being established, and in a later chapter, God speaks through the prophet saying, “It is too small a thing for you to… restore the tribes of Jacob and… Israel... I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Today’s psalm instructs us to declare God’s “glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples… In the letter to Titus, Paul says God is bringing salvation to all the world. In Luke’s gospel, when the shepherds see and experience the infant Messiah in the manger as the angels told them they would, they rush out to share broadly this good news of great joy and all who heard them were amazed.

The lesson is simply this, as said by N.T. Wright, former Bp. of Durham in England, “There are no individual Christians.”* Christians are, by definition, a body – the body of Christ in the world. Salvation is for all of us.

As the mental video continues, we see the typical creche scene with Jesus in the manger, Mary and Joseph at his side, animals peacefully present with shepherds nearby holding their crooks – all gazing in awe at the baby before them. What is the lesson of this part of the story?

When we open our eyes to see Jesus we will recognize his divine presence and be overcome with a peace that makes no sense in the world but is real in our bodies and spirits.

As for the drummer boy, really, the memes are hilarious. My favorite one says, “Mary, exhausted, having just gotten Jesus to sleep, is approached by a young man who thinks to himself: what this girl needs is a drum solo.”

For many indigenous cultures, however, the drum is an important spiritual tool that manifests the divine heartbeat in all of creation for those who learn how to listen. There are also the more traditional lessons that we give from the gifts God has given us, gifts don’t have to be expensive, and giving of ourselves makes every gift we offer a gift of great value.

The shepherds teach us that God chooses those whom society wouldn’t: the poor, dirty, uneducated, and unimportant. Without any theological education, these first evangelists, the shepherds, witnessed with great effect, therefore, so can we all... so can you.

As Episcopalians, we don’t read the Bible literally. We open ourselves to the truths it offers by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, eternal truths that guide us in the 21st century as effectively as they guided the believers in the first century BCE.

And the truth of Christmas is this: today we celebrate the birth of new life - the Christ. This new life has been conceived by God, is God, and has been made manifest in the world. 

It starts small, this new life. It’s as delicate and vulnerable as it is beautiful. The people given to care for this new life know they’re going to have to tend to it for a long time before it comes into its fullness. This means they have to commit long-term to doing the little things, the every day, inglorious things, so that, when it comes to its fullness, this new life, conceived by God, will have its effect.

For Mary and Joseph, that meant breastfeeding a crying baby Jesus, changing his dirty diapers, schlepping back and forth between Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth to keep him from being destroyed by insane, earthly power, teaching him to be a carpenter, and taking him to church to learn his faith.

For us, it means doing the everyday, inglorious spiritual and worldly work that feeds and nurtures the new life of Christ God is giving us. Practicing the disciplines of daily prayer, attending weekly corporate worship, caring for our bodies as the dwelling places of the Holy Spirit of God, and being patient, loving, and hope-filled even as tensions rise and compassion disappears in the world around us. As Marianne Williams says in her poem, "Our Greatest Fear." "We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us."

One of the reasons the Christmas story never gets old, I think, is because it is so deeply within us, because Christ is so deeply in us. This isn’t just the sacred story of the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph, it’s the sacred story of the eternally happening birth of the Christ; the continuing birth of new life in all humankind, redeeming life conceived by God, and made manifest in us, who share this good news of great joy with the effect that one day the whole world will be reconciled to God.

May the blessings of Christmas be lavished upon us all and through us, the world. Amen.

* Wright, N.T., What St. Paul Really Said, Was Paul of Tarsus the real founder of Christianity? (Wm B Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), 158.

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