We all have our favorite ways to celebrate what this night is about. Favorite hymns, lighting candles, manger scenes. Some churches like to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord in the historically accurate way, with live outdoor nativity scenes giving us some idea of what that First Night was like. Meant to connect us to an event that happened long ago, But the people and animals have had the benefit of being cleaned up, just showing up for the gig. Not having labored to journey there on foot over weeks, or as a woman in her last weeks of pregnancy trudging along when all she really wants to do is put her feet up and relax. When Catherine was about 4 months old we got a phone call from the local Methodist church. They put on a drive-by living Nativity each year, but that year they were short on babies and they had heard that the Lutherans had 15 babies that year, and would we let them use our daughter for their production? They shared with me a schedule of available nights and times, and I selected a mutually convenient date for her two hour appearance there. But that day there was an ice storm. And being a good mother I assumed it would be expected that no baby should be out in that so we didn’t go. Well, I got an irate phone call the next day. The Nativity HAD gone on, being accurate and all. They had to use a baby doll for Jesus since I had not brought our daughter to play God’s Son. I had somehow ruined the “authentic” scene they were creating to the glory of God. Our enactments of the birth of Christ are places painstakingly planned, with expectations, and well publicized so we know when to come, making sure the people we want to be there have been told. Everything was planned and I unsettled it. It was all a little ironic.
The arrival of our Lord was so different. Born in a nowhere place, to an unknown girl, in circumstances that seemed frankly scandalous. Perhaps that’s why there was a birth on the road in the first place. Mary didn’t actually need to be counted in the census. She could’ve stayed with family. Yet it seems it was safer for her and her child to NOT be seen in Nazareth, even though this was an unsettling journey. And whether he was born in a barn, or a stable or a cave- none of those are the sanitized places we depict. They don’t provide the dignity we wish for. And it’s shocking that this birth, of little consequence in the world’s eyes, was seemingly randomly heralded to of all people, migrant workers in a field at night, against the sensibilities of the community. To top it all off, the One who will be the Almighty Messiah still has to “grow up.” I don’t really believe that Jesus was the perfect baby and every night was a silent night. He was nursed, bathed and changed by a first time parent who probably wasn’t all pulled together and serene. Living in a family just getting by in a world that was living in peace, but peace that came with a cost of submission. A fearful peace. Being born into this world would hardly be the way we wish it had been or would be today.
We want perfect, powerful and majestic but such interpretations of this night are miles away from reality. Why do we domesticate the humility, simplicity and servanthood of Christ’s Incarnation? I think it’s because we don’t want to confront our place in a world of pain, waste, blood, and tears. We of the ordered liturgy hope to avoid the chaotic. Don’t show us a world where later Jesus will be on a “Wanted” poster. It’s unsettling. We want it all ordered, but in truth, our humanity is unsettled, not domesticated. Our crèche and this space look pretty different from our own world. And even though the angels say,” Don’t be afraid” often we are. The birth of Christ began God’s unsettling of this world.
Our celebration is a chance to step away from our work, our worries and our world into this space of our inner hopes and dreams. Again this night, we gather here in a special place that we’ve planned and prepared for so that everything is “just so.” But as we pull in close to sing and hold onto the light and get teary eyed about a silent night where all is calm and bright and comfortable, we should remember God didn’t come to save us from this.
The good news is that it’s our real world that God enters. Living and breathing and moving with us as we long for a peace and justice that we cannot see, and for an abundance and comfort we wish we really knew. God comes into THIS WORLD knowing that beyond all of our trappings, we can’t clean it up and we really shouldn’t be favored. Yet unto US a child is born. God in a tiny vulnerable baby embraced who we really are. What a mystery it remains that Divine God stooped to become one of us, for no earthly reason, but only out of God’s love. To show that God chooses to redeem and save us. This is the story we can really connect to.
As we proclaim this wondrous event tonite, may we be unsettled from all of our efforts to manage our manger.
Remembering that God’s appearance came first as good news to the un-pulled together. So if you feel like you made it here tonite solely by the grace of God, hear this amazing good news! If you feel it’s an overwhelming struggle to hold it all together, know God’s power and mercy are all we need. And what we receive in Christ. The reason we can know silent nights or joy or peace or hope. This is the good news of Christ!
And it’s not just for some of us. The heavenly choir and response of the shepherds show this is such good news, it goes way beyond our carefully constructed lists. It’s good news to proclaim with abandon. Tell it far and wide, Come and See! Telling those who GOD favors and wants to hear. This is how we praise God’s glory and power and mercy over all the earth, a goodness that really is as wonderful as the gospel tells. Let’s unsettle the world with this glorious news! And authentically celebrate the coming of Christ by living as those who believe He is indeed the source of great joy for our world, and the One who makes real peace possible- for you, for me, forever. AMEN