When my daughter was first able to express her desire for a particular bedtime book, I found that she wanted to read the same book over and over again. After a while, I knew the words and images of Goodnight Moon by heart. Knowing them by heart meant that I always knew how many more pages we had to go, and what the next rhyme would be. I knew which pages would be in color and which ones would be in black and white. I remember several times trying to convince my daughter to try one of the other lovely books on her shelf, but she wanted the familiar. Just the other day, I stumbled across Goodnight Moon at the bottom of a stack of books, and a broad smile spread across my face. I sat down and turned the pages on my own. Memories of rocking my much smaller daughter to sleep, of turning on her music mobile, and of tiptoeing out of the room flooded my mind. Rereading those words and seeing the pictures again brought to mind a very happy time.
Sometimes I think the Christmas story from Luke is like that for all of us. We have heard the words hundreds of times – from priests, in pageants, and even in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” We long for the familiarity of the words. We close our eyes as the words wash over us, the familiarity giving us a sense of peace and calm. This is why we came here tonight – to have the familiar story retold to us, to center and ground us in the story of our ancestors.
In truth, we all could use a familiar comforting story lately. We have had a rough couple of months. Between the mess of Superstorm Sandy and the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, we are emotionally exhausted. Add on to that the normal stress of Christmas – traveling to be with family or hosting people, running around trying to get the perfect Christmas presents, making sure the kitchen is stocked with the ingredients for everyone’s favorite recipes, and getting out those Christmas cards. The roads are crazy with traffic and our minds are in a hundred different places. Although we come to Church nicely dressed on Christmas Eve, our appearance only masks the chaos within ourselves. In the midst of all of this, we long for a familiar, soothing story. We need a “once upon a time,” story where we can turn off our minds and settle into the goodness of God’s incarnate son.
The problem with this desire for comforting familiarity is that Jesus’ birth story is not exactly a comforting story. We prefer to hear the story this way: “Once upon a time, there were two people in love who were given the gift of birthing God incarnate. And when this sweet baby was born, angels appeared to shepherds who came to celebrate the Christ Child. And they all lived happily ever after.” We do the same thing with our own family stories: “Once upon a time, grandma and grandpa had mommy and daddy who had me. Every Christmas we gathered together and celebrated with our whole family in great joy, peace, and harmony.” We leave out the part where our drunk uncle always marred the celebration, our grandma always managed to insult our mother, and we always just wanted the day to be over so we could go home and sleep off weeks of Christmas anticipation finally fulfilled.
When we treat Christ’s story as a “once upon a time” story, we forget the real details too. A very pregnant Mary and a troubled Joseph have just taken a long journey, bowing to the demands of the empire. The city is so crowded, they are forced to sleep and birth their first child among hay and animals. Later, angels in their astounding and shocking glory appear to shepherds – the lowest on the social strata – to share the news of Jesus’ birth. These grubby men with their loud animals barge in on what is already a messy temporary home to share the angels’ story with Mary and Joseph. In the framework of an oppressive empire, we find our savior being born not in the majesty due a king, but in a very normal, vulnerable, if not impoverished setting. When the news is announced, the news does not come to the Temple priests or religious leaders of the time. Instead, the news is given to nobodies, with little influence or power. This amazing, incredible thing – God taking on human flesh, becoming incarnate to save us, happens in the form of a vulnerable baby in a nondescript setting.[i] This version of the story does not have quite the same ring as the “once upon a time” version we most prefer.
The good news is that the messy, uncomfortable, tense version of this story has much more meaning than our glossy version of the story. As strange as this may sound, Jesus’ birth happening in this un-peaceful setting is what makes this story so full of peace. From the very birth of Jesus, we discover what this new life will be about – the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.[ii] Why would this kind of news be good news for us? This is good news because not only does Jesus give us our mission from the very beginning of his life – to serve the poor, marginalized, and outcast – but also Jesus reminds us that we too are impoverished without God. As Bede reminds us, “Though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich.”[iii]
You may not know this about me, but I am a big fan of religious art, especially art portraying Mary and child. Certainly fine art depictions and iconography of Mary and Jesus are fascinating, but what I most like are renderings that catch me off guard. One of my favorites is an icon from Cameroon, depicting a very African Mary and Jesus. A more recent addition to my collection is of a dimly lit room, with a sweaty, exhausted Mary, messily splayed out on a make-shift bed, surrounded by women helping her recover from childbirth. In the dim background, a baby is being held, without much detail, but a light halo around his head. Something about the raw, gritty nature of the scene opened up for me something fresh about that night.
What I like about this painting is that it offers the raw, real version of the Christmas story. The painting takes us out of the idealized “Silent Night,” version of Christmas, and throws us into a night that is much messier. Besides, there was little about that night that was silent. Surely Mary cried out in childbirth, Jesus screamed as a newborn, and there was a commotion with all those animals around. Surely the heavenly host singing did not make for a silent night. Surely that noisy night was as loud, noisy, and messy as our lives.
And that is where I find comfort in the birth story tonight. Imagine your favorite aunt leaning over to whisper in your ear a story like this: “Once upon a time, two scared young people said yes to God, and in the most socially unacceptable way, brought a young baby into this world. They did not have a nice place to stay, but they made due. Later, a crew of crusty sheep keepers came and told them a fantastic story of angels affirming what Mary and Joseph knew all along – their precious little son who had already caused so much trouble for them was actually going to save the world. And as all those gathered around looked at one another – disrespected shepherds, a socially outcast couple, and a vulnerable little baby – they laughed. The laughed because they knew the truth – God has a funny way of breaking into the world and bringing salvation to those of us who need saving!”
Now maybe this version is not the version you needed to bring you that sense of longed for familiarity. Maybe you just want to hear, “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” But this rougher version offers us the interpretation we need to understand why tonight’s familiar story is so full of hope. For if God can redeem the messiness of the world, maybe God can redeem the messiness of our lives too. Amen.
[i] Charles L. Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),121.
[ii] Robert Redman, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),120.
[iii] Redman, 120.