Isaiah 9:2-7+Psalm 96+Titus 2:11-14+Luke 2:1-14
One of my favorite things this time of year is to open the mailbox to find Christmas cards from friends all over the world, people I have met over the course of my life who I may not see very often, but hearing from them at Christmas gives me such joy. A lot of these Christmas greetings come from young couples I have married or who I met in divinity school or friends of my own children. Many of them are now raising young families of their own.
One of the cards we received a couple of weeks ago was from a young couple I met at Yale. They were married in our final spring semester of school, and they have since grown their family by two little girls. Their card this year contained a picture of these under-five-years old children, and it was one of those pictures that normally would have been an outtake. You know what I’m talking about – not the official, smiling, everything-in-place picture, but the one that you keep anyway because it will make an amusing memory someday. Well, these friends used that picture on their card – the five-year-old making a face and the two-year-old scowling and looking away. And the words on this card said: “It’s fine. We’re fine. Everything is fine.” And if that doesn’t sum up 2020, I don’t know what does.
It might also sum up that first rude and uncomfortable Christmas. Nothing about it was fine. There was no perfection for the perfect child of God. But it was fine. Because God came. God always comes. And the angels sing.
At our 5:00 service this evening, the children of the parish presented the annual Christmas pageant, virtually, of course, telling the story of the nativity. Like all such Christmas pageants, it contains the whole kitchen sink – the parts from Luke and the parts from Matthew, a holy mashup of events that don’t actually fit together in the gospels but that work just fine as story. And it is fine. One of the wonders of having four gospels is the invitation to use our imaginations to piece together some semblance of truth about a God who came as one of us, a God who is Love.
I’m going to invite you to engage in your imagination a little bit tonight, too. I don’t know about you, but given the year that we have had with the pandemic and all the death and sickness and the election chaos and financial and employment woes, hearing about how lonely and isolated Mary and Joseph must have been is not really the story I want to hear this year. It isn’t the story I need to hear this year. So thank God there is another story.
You will recall from this narrative that we have heard year after year that Joseph’s family is from Bethlehem. This is why they have to travel there to register. You may also know that in Middle Eastern and Jewish culture, even today, hospitality is an absolute requirement. To turn someone away would bring immense shame on a household, so the idea that some random innkeeper did so would be laughable to someone of that time. So, chances are, Joseph has shown up at the doorstep of a house where some relative of his lives. They are not going to be turned away.
But all of the rooms were full. The word Luke uses here is kataluma, guest room. It is not a Motel 6. There’s a different word for that. No, this house has a kataluma, a guest room, and it was already occupied. The population of Bethlehem had multiplied with all the people coming to town to register for the census, so, no room. However, they would not have been turned away. There was an area in the lower part of the house, sort of a courtyard, where the animals were brought in for the night so that they did not wander off or get stolen. Mary and Joseph made lodging for themselves there. And you can be sure that the women who were in the house helped Mary give birth, attended to her as women did in that time and culture, and when the baby’s cries were heard, not only did the angels sing, but all the people in that household surely rejoiced that Mary had been safely delivered of her son.
Finally, to make sure that this babe was not trampled on by some random goat or cow, they placed him somewhere off the ground, in that manger, where he would be safe.
I don’t tell you all of this to wreck your understanding of the Christmas story. I tell you this because we have had enough of loneliness and isolation for one year. There have been too many people sick and dying alone, their last words from family mediated by a caring health care worker and an iPhone. And if Christmas is anything, it is Good News of great joy for all people. And all those people include Mary, who would have been a terrified young girl to give birth alone in a stable. So rather than imagining how awful it must have been – and it was rough and challenging – imagine Mary surrounded by older, experienced women and midwives, helping her bring the son of God into this world.
If this birth of Jesus is Good News of great joy for all people, it is also good news for those who mourn tonight; those who are struggling to make ends meet; those whose livelihoods have been devastated by the pandemic. And this Good News is this: we are not alone. We are so beloved that God chose to become just like us to guide us back to God. It happened in less-than-ideal circumstances so long ago, and it happens in less-than-ideal circumstances now.
One of our most familiar Christmas Carols, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, actually has no mention of God or the birth of Jesus, but I’m not sure there’s another song that we sing that so captures what Christmas, especially this Christmas feels like:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
If you are “beneath life’s crushing load,” if you are lonely or worried or sad this Christmas Eve, listen for the singing of the angels. Look for the light that leads to the manger. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” the prophet tells us. It is a light that the overcame death and the grave. It is a light that can overcome a pandemic. It is a light that shows us the way home.
So we really are fine. It really is fine. Everything is fine.
Merry Christmas to you and all those you love and pray for.