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Like many who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, I had a mostly secular childhood. We celebrated Christmas along with most of the people I knew, but it was mostly a sentimental season with decorations, carols, cookies and presents. More important than the religious significance of Christmas was my family’s cultural background including Swedish ornaments and meatballs from my grandfather’s side and the annual singing of Silent Night in German around the Christmas tree with my grandmother.
It’s a beautiful time. There are candles and lights, music and singing, the sharing of gifts and extra generosity towards those in need. It was enough for me as a child, and I still love it along with all the traditions that come with Christmas.
But now that I am an adult, it’s not enough. No amount of Christmas cheer can take away the pain and sadness that many are experiencing. All the lights and tinsel cannot cover up the poverty I see on a daily basis. No matter how much I give away at the end of the year, it cannot cover up the gap between my wealth and so much of the world’s need. And no proclamation of peace on earth and goodwill toward all can silence the violence and hatred that is taking place on a daily basis.
It’s time to take a closer look at the Christmas story, to examine the relevance of a birth narrative over 2,000 years old. This night we proclaim Jesus as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, but what does that mean? What difference does it make? What lasting effect does Christmas have once the ornaments are stored away and the bleak days of January with its alarming news cycle continue?
Have you ever noticed how Luke’s famous gospel reading begins? “A decree, all the world, Emperor Augustus, registration, governor of Syria.” The birth of Jesus takes place in a particular political reality. The intimate lives of a poor, peasant girl and her carpenter fiancé are impacted by an occupying Emperor who ruled over a huge amount of territory and people. In name, Augustus was the “First Citizen” of Rome and had established a Roman Senate, magistrate and a legislative assembly, but in effect he ruled as a military dictator with absolute autocratic power.
The forced registration of all those in occupied territories was a burden and a terror to the populace. It didn’t matter that Mary was nine months pregnant or that a journey would be costly and dangerous. If the government required you to register there was no other alternative. The powerful can always demand what they want from those with little power.
Another thing about this story. Have you ever wondered why the angel went first to shepherds in the fields? The gap between the rich and the poor was great in first century Palestine and shepherds were near the bottom. They camped outside with little shelter and warmth. They were often nomadic, seasonal laborers, traveling where they could find pasture for their sheep. Their hygiene was suspect along with their morals. I’m sure that smoking and drinking helped them to make it through the long, cold nights. I can’t believe they would make trustworthy witnesses to God’s most important message. Who would listen to them?
How amazing this experience must have been for them to head right into town, unwashed and scruffy to find the baby and deliver the message of the angels! These are the guys who when you see them coming, you might cross over to the other side of the street, but they are the ones to whom the great good news is entrusted.
Finally, where are the religious leaders in this narrative? Why aren’t the priests informed? Why doesn’t the chorus of angels deliver their song in the synagogue? And why does this take place in the backwater village of Bethlehem rather than the holy city of Jerusalem? Who’s going to hear or believe this when it happens so far from all the seats of political and religious power to people who are poor, outsiders and oppressed?
But that’s the point Luke is making, isn’t it? God comes first to those on the margins. Jesus isn’t born in a palace or a capitol or a tower. God’s messengers don’t arrive in the Temple or a place of worship. Jesus is born among the poor and lowly. Jesus is born to those who have been outside so long that they have nearly given up on God. Jesus is born into the whole risky human reality. And Jesus continues to be born where people need him most.
This world needs him now. We need to hear the message: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” There is no political leader who can deliver us from the terror of a world torn apart by violence and threatened by destruction. There is no religious leader who can smooth over sorrow and suffering by promising wealth, health and prosperity. There is no amount of goodwill that can prevent the tragedies of addiction, illness, sin and death.
But there is one who has promised to come and dwell with us, Emmanuel, the God who arrives in vulnerability and powerlessness. He is the one who shakes the world by his coming and provokes the powers by his presence. He upends our expectations by being born among the poor and dying next to criminals. The light that shone in the darkest night of his birth will never go out. The love that he brings will ultimately triumph over all the “boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood.”
The Christmas story is not about sentimental escapism from a broken world. It’s about repairing it. It’s about small acts done with great love. It’s about courage and resistance in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s about witnessing to a different reality not covered in the headlines and twitter feeds. It’s about discovering the Christ in unexpected ways and in unexpected people.
Each Christmas I return to a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor who returned to Nazi Germany in order to build Christian community and foster Christian hope. He opposed Hitler as a dangerous, political despot and was ultimately imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. Like the Lord he loved and followed he lived in the real world of dangerous political figures, cowardly religious leaders and people willing to ignore what was happening to the least, last and lost in their midst. He wrote from prison:
“Jesus stands at the door knocking. In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the [Christmas] Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”
Emmanuel, God with us, the hope of the world. Come let us adore him.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016