“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
It had to take me reading the Christmas birth story from Matthew and Luke again this year to recall how it was when my children were born.
I had forgotten, now some 18 years ago, how anxious, fearful and disruptive the whole birthing experience was—more for Jessica than for me: The anticipation, then all the things that didn’t go according to plan while in the hospital, not to mention the physical pain and uncertainty surrounding the whole event. I’d forgotten how it was.
Bodies are messy. Birth is messy.
Unpredictable, dangerous even. If we imagine Mary as only docile and sweet—a virgin—will we forget over two thousand years later Mary’s own sexuality and the real physical pain of bringing a baby into the world?
Will we forget that Mary was a real woman, and Jesus a real baby who grew to be a real man? That both were flesh and blood, both had real bodies? Will we forget that a woman’s body was torn open by a baby forcing its way into the world, a hungry, crying, and helpless infant body to feed, wash, and warm?
I hope not. Diana Butler Bass asserts in her recent book, Freeing Jesus, that:
“Eventually, the mystery of God’s glory runs smack into the muck of human bodies; the divine Word became flesh from the same dust and spittle that made us all. Mary’s body brought forth the tiny body of God; Her water breaking and the bloody birth made possible the water and blood of the cross some thirty years later.
“‘To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ We emphasize ‘Savior,’ ‘Messiah,’ and ‘Lord,’ but forget the most amazing word in the angelic proclamation: ‘born.’”
The divine is hidden quietly inside the human. The holy is hidden in the physical and the material. And if in the human of two thousand years ago, God is not finished with us today. If in the material and physical of two thousand years ago, God is not finished with this physical and material world today.
All is not lost. There is someone, somewhere. There is God whom you will find not in some otherworldly, cerebral, abstract sense. But born on earth. Here and now. Accessible to you, in the flesh. A people. Someone. Somewhere.
Perhaps the problem isn’t that God is missing in all the disruption and anxiety and fear surrounding this COVID Christmas time. Perhaps the problem is our expectations, and where we will look to find Jesus born anew in our time and place. Because God is Emmanuel. God is with us.
We have every reason to live in hope and trust and confidence.
I have tree problems, I must admit. The Christmas tree inside the house, and the trees outside our house, have certain challenges, you might say.
When I ordered our artificial Christmas tree some years ago, I wanted it to be tall enough to just reach the ceiling of our living room. So I ordered the 10-foot one. However when it arrived and I set it up in place, the tip was about 6 inches too long. So, I had to deal with a crooked tip. How would a star fit on top of my Christmas Tree?
The opposite problem existed outside. The tips, the leads, of two of my six white pine trees, now about 6 feet tall have fallen off because of the white pine blister fungus. These trees will lose their straight-line trunk as they grow and reach for the sky.
When these tips fell off a couple months ago, I must admit I grieved this change of their life’s trajectory. The trees will have a crooked trunk from about six feet up. Their new branches near the top will eventually bend towards the sky. They will not look the way I had envisioned when I first planted the seedlings in a row at the back of our property.
When I did a book search on Amazon using the title “The Crooked Tree” I was surprised to find not one, but several books with this title. All of them were geared to Christmas time, and most of them offered a spiritual message.
I guess I’m not alone in searching for meaning in a Christmas Tree that is not perfect, crooked in fact. Would we yearn for a celebration of Christ’s birth that was not encumbered by expectations we have, expectations that contribute to the stress of the season?
I love Charlie Brown Christmas trees – a 2-foot tall, low-leaning branch in a pot, really, bearing only one red ball which pulls down the tip. Whenever I see one in someone’s house, I gravitate towards it.
But when we set up our Charlie Brown Christmas trees, is it the only festive tree in the house? Or, is it meant only to serve some comic-relief, meant merely to complement the other more serious decorations in our homes? Do we make sure the real, dressed up, ‘perfect’ tree is centred in front of the picture window in the grand rooms of our homes? I’d be tempted to go there, I must admit.
I like the story about Martin Luther in the sixteenth century going into the bush before Christmas, cutting down and hauling in an evergreen tree to put candles on it. Lighted, these candles attached to the branches of the tree. They reminded Luther of the stars that he saw shining in the sky above. They filtered through branches of the forest around him. Martin Luther, of course, understood these lights to symbolize the light of Christ shining in the dark, the light coming into the world.
I will read later tonight from the first chapter of the Gospel of John describing the light coming into the world. That is the meaning of Christmas—Jesus, Son of God, came to us.
And what is more to this story of Jesus coming – the Light of the world shining in the night – is that God does not wait until the morning. God does not wait until midday when all is bright in our lives. God comes at night when the monsters creep in the shadows and our minds and hearts can’t see clearly.
Understand, God does not wait until everything is perfect. God does not wait until you find your way. God does not wait until you get it right. God does not wait until you fix all your problems. God does not wait until everything that is wrong is gone. God does not wait until COVID is over before coming into our lives.
Because on a crooked branch, there is still room. The top part of my Christmas tree can still hold a star. There is room aplenty on crooked branches to hold all manner of stars.
And God rejoices this night. God rejoices that the tree with crooked branches can bear the star, hold the light. And that is all we are: Christ-bearers, holders of the light. Our hearts, our lives, crooked and imperfect in every way imaginable, can still reflect and hold the light that has come. That, my friends, is good news.
It just makes me want to sing! “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree …”
 A couple of books I have read recently – Damian Chandler, The Crooked Christmas Tree: The Beautiful Meaning of Jesus’ Birth (New York: Hachette Book Group Inc., 2017); and, Michael Tracey, The Crooked Christmas Tree (Michael Tracey, 2012).
The story of Mary visiting Elizabeth vibrates with energy. There is this back-and-forth, cause and effect, initiative and response. If Newton’s Third Law of physics – that every action has a reaction—were applied to people, here would be a good, positive example.
Mary’s visit causes notable reaction. Her cousin Elizabeth is affected by Mary. And not only Elizabeth. Twice in the description of the visit the Gospel notes that “the child leaped in her womb”. The greeting causes a responsive, palpable joy that we can feel in the text.
The meeting between the yet unborn Jesus and John the Baptist and their mothers is pregnant with meaning – which prompts Mary, then, to sing her famous Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord!” You can’t help but envision this scene which is about relationships between individuals.
Today, I put the final piece in place in the house we have been building for Christ over these past Sundays of Advent. We started with the foundation of love—fences and a frame that made room for everyone including the animals and all creatures great and small. Last week we added the star shining brightly its joyous guidance to those journeying to meet the Lord. Today, we finally see the centrepiece, the Holy Family.
What stands out for me in this particular manger scene is how Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger are not separate pieces. They are one piece. Of course, they are one family. They form one unit, connected in their relationships with each other. The emphasis here is their connection rather than their individualities. And I think this is important when we reflect on all things Christian.
The story of Christmas, indeed the story of the bible, is not about autonomous individuals living out their private lives. The emphasis is not as much about individuals as it is about relationship in community: Their relationship with God, and with one another.
Christmas is about people, a cast of characters. If you’d miss anyone in the story it would be incomplete. Missing from this particular manger scene are the Magi and the Shepherds. Perhaps your manger scene at home has these important characters. You can’t tell the Christmas story without the angels, the shepherds, the wise visitors from the East, the animals, the guiding star, Herod, Joseph, Mary and Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Zechariah and of course—at the centre—baby Jesus.
Christmas is about people, and so is Christianity. Christian faith would mean nothing without the cast of characters that make up God’s grand story of faithfulness to the people of God of all time and in every place. Everyone in this story is important, critical, to its telling.
You are a part of God’s story. While faith is personal, faith is not individualistic. When you were baptized, you were not alone baptizing yourself. When you eat the holy meal, you are not doing it all on your own—whether online or onsite here. It’s about the relationships between the individual parts—that’s where the meaning is for faith.
Even our advent wreaths. Whether we have it hanging from the ceiling, or whether it sits on a side table, or shelf, or on a stand in the middle of the floor, the advent wreath is not suspended in a vacuum. Here at Faith, the red ribbons stream upward from the circular frame, four of them, where they are tied securely together at the ceiling. The ribbons hold it all together in place. They are the ‘glue’ keeping the wreath from falling down.
So I have to imagine the shepherds and Magi here as well. They connect prominently to the Christmas story. And what do the shepherds and wise men do when they come to the manger? What comes to my mind is that they kneel, bow, stoop low to get close to see the baby Jesus. Their posture strikes me.
Do your shepherds stand? Do the three Magi remain on their feet or their camels? Or, as they come near to the manger, do they put down their staffs on the ground, and kneel?
Here we probe some depth in the character of God’s relationship with humanity. It’s the posture that’s important, the nature of the relationship. Mary and Elizabeths’ greeting and meeting was one of joy, celebration and praise. What does the manger scene reveal about the nature of our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us—the glue that holds it all together? What words would you use to describe God’s posture towards us?
It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent – the last stop on our journey to Bethlehem.
It may be tempting these last days to make it about us, and about our abilities to accomplish everything before the special day arrives. It may be tempting to make Christ’s arrival dependent or conditional on us getting it right. Christmas will happen—we may be tempted to think—only if it happens a certain way (when all the decorations are put out, when the meal is prepared, when all the family arrives, when all the gifts are bought and wrapped, when we can pack a church with robust singing of the favourite carols, etc., etc.).
Martin Luther cautioned people of faith not to depend on our righteousness, our ability, even our humility to make things right with God. So, we can kneel or sit, yes, in all humility. Or, we can stand, if that’s how it is for us. God sees it, and God knows.
But time and time again, what is really important, is that the God of the bible, the God in Christ Jesus, stoops to our level. God initiates the relationship. The first Christmas didn’t happen because people had it all right and organized. God stoops to wherever we are—in our thoughts, our feelings, our actions our beliefs. It doesn’t matter, at the start and at the end, what we believe or don’t believe, what we do or don’t do, what we feel or don’t feel.
God still comes to us. God stoops down to where we are. Christ will come into our world and our lives this COVID Christmas.
And as I’ve said just before the start of the Advent journey this year, I’ll say again at the end:
For, in Jesus Christ, we will meet a God who will not be armed with lightning bolts but will stoop to us with basin and towel.
We will meet a God who will not spew threats and lies but will stoop to the poor with good news for all.
We will meet a God who will not ride a warhorse but stoop on a donkey’s back.
We will meet a God not part of the Jerusalem religious establishment, but a God who will stoop to live in backwater Nazareth.
We will meet a God not born in a palace somewhere atop a hill, but a God who will stoop, a helpless, vulnerable baby born to two, poor teenagers in a barn.
Now that our house is built, we can both contemplate the nature of our connections and relationships and pay attention in our words and our deeds to the witness we make to this God who will always stoop, to come to us.
They had a vision. But perhaps it wasn’t quite the way they had expected it to turn out. But was it worth the risk? Now that is the question.
They wanted fireworks for the wedding reception. When we arrived a couple days before the wedding at our friends’ home, the father of the groom opened his shirt at the table. And with jaws dropped, we saw a large, purple bruise circling most of his chest area. What happened?
The groom wanted fireworks in the backyard where the wedding was going to take place the next day. In setting it up the night before, the groom, brother-in-law and father were careful to follow the instructions. Except they must have missed something.
Beause when they tested the fireworks, the riggings exploded and the fireworks shot out in every direction but upwards. The groom and brother-in-law dove for safety to avoid the flaming projectiles. But one hit the father in the chest with force and knocked him over. He was fortunate not to have sustained greater damage to his body!
Was it worth the risk? That is the question.
On some Advent wreaths, the third candle is pink because rose is a liturgical color for joy. This third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday, from the Latin, and is meant to remind us both of the joy that the world experienced at the birth of Jesus, as well as the joy that the faithful have reached the midpoint of the Advent journey.
Today, we place a star over the open frame of the house built on love, for Christ. The star of Bethlehem gives light, a shining beacon in the dark night. And so the candles are lighted, now three of them on the Advent wreath. We begin to notice the light that is given off. After all, an Advent wreath isn’t really doing its job unless the candles are lighted, showing their albeit tiny flames.
It is the Sunday of celebration, not unlike the fourth Sunday in Lent called “Laetare”. In all our preparing, keeping on track, and our work we now anticipate and expect the end of the journey which is near! So, what do we do now that we are almost there? Waiting, after all, is so difficult.
The crowds asked John the Baptist, “What should we do?” now that the Messiah was very near, closer than they thought! With all the upheaval, fear and anxiety about the future, what to do, whom to trust? Is John the Messiah? When the big picture seems uncertain, and society as a whole feels like it’s on the brink, what do we do? “As the people asking John the Baptist were filled with expectation”, so are our hearts. What should we do in this short time before Christmas?
Gaudete and Laetare both mean “Rejoice!”. But some suggest a subtle difference. First, this work happens on the inside of our lives. This is the work of Gaudete. This work is self-reflective. We examine our own expectations. We consider our own desires and acknowedge our own restlessness. What are we waiting for? What are your desires this Advent? How is that you expect Jesus to arrive in your life this Christmas? How are you watching and waiting? These are important Advent questions to ask yourself.
But what is the outside work—Laetare—from which we pause to celebrate? What is it that keeps our noses to the ground, so to speak, and hands in the dirt, to get ready, spiritually?
John the Baptist gives practical advice if not delivered with much fire and brimstone. John tells them: Give what you have to someone who doesn’t have. Share what little we have with others. Be fair and just in your daily transactions. Don’t threaten anyone. And be content with what you have. Small acts of kindness. Paying loving attention to the little things. Sounds like a good prescription for unsettling times, and for good mental health. Just focus, one day at a time, one small act of kindness at a time.
And sometimes doing these small things for God is a bit of a risk. Whenever we move out of our comfort zones, consider another point of view, whenever we refrain from reacting out of anger, fear or anxiety—we know the risk because things are changing. Yes. But we do so primarily responding to something moving in our hearts. Something powerful and good drawing us forward.
The season of waiting expectantly gives permission for us to acknowledge our restlessness and our desires despite the tensions and suffering those desires and expectations can create for us. This is part of our humanity, a humanity not denied by the journey of faith, especially the journey to Bethlehem.
The Magi and the Shepherds took great risks to pursue their longings—dealing with Herod, for example. Despite this adversity, they nevertheless responded to the movement of their restless and adventurous hearts to follow the light in the sky.
Christian hope is not really the belief that tomorrow is necessarily going to be better, or that the future will turn out the way we expect it to or even desire it to. Christian hope is not the belief that as Christians we won’t ever meet with adversity.
All that Jesus seems to be saying is that even if one mustard seed is sprouting, or one coin found, or one sheep recovered that is reason enough for a big party. “Even a small indicator of God is still an indicator of God—and therefore an indicator of final reason, meaning, and joy. A little bit of God goes a long way.” A tiny flame on a simple candle.
At the outdoor wedding feast when we danced the night away, what joy it was to see those firecrackers going off at midnight, once they got it right. I thanked God for the risks my friends took to have firecrackers at this wedding. Those risks gave us the gifts of light and joy in the night. It was worth the risk.
Unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure—and this is what the pandemic has forced upon us to an extent; unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow.
So much of the bible, and from other writings that stand the test of time, underscore this important theme. From the story of Abraham in Genesis, to the great epic stories of the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Lord of the Rings. They all require leaving everything and going on a journey that will lead to a new life, a new identity, and newfound joy.
They all took risks. And they all experienced joy. Let it be for us as well. Amen.