How many of you know the story of your birth? My mother tells me that I came three weeks late! Doctors will not even let mothers go that late nowadays. Even at three weeks late, my mom still had to be induced, have her water broken, and then eventually have a c-section. My sister-in-law, on the other hand, came very early. She was so early that she had to stay in the hospital for a very long time. She had a long tough road, including having her brother give her chicken pox while she was in the NICU. But eventually, she came home and grew into a healthy child. There are countless other stories like this: kids who came so fast that their mothers delivered in a car, kids delivered at home before even a midwife could arrive, or even kids being born on a plane.
We all have a birth story. Some are more dramatic than others, but all are unique to us and usually our parents tell us the story year after year. What is funny is that many would argue that our birth stories tell us a little about who we will become later in life. My late birth and my refusal to come even when encouraged has led many people to insist that my stubbornness was obvious from a very early age. My sister-in-law, who survived for months in the NICU proved to be a fighter for the rest of her life – determined to make her own way. Some of the children born of exciting births tend to be adventurers or to be spontaneous and full of surprises. I often wondered if the child born of a woman whose water broke during our prenatal yoga class ended up being very Zen-like in life. Regardless of your story, my guess is that your family believes your birth story says something about who you are and how you behave.
Today we celebrate a particular person’s birth story. Jesus’ birth story is another one of those exciting stories. You can almost imagine how Jesus’ family recounted the details every year. They knew Jesus was going to be trouble when Mary showed up pregnant while she and Joseph were betrothed. They probably reminded him of how when the government crack-down happened, poor Mary had to travel with Joseph on that donkey while nine months pregnant all the way to Bethlehem to be registered. Surely they told Jesus how when they finally survived that long journey, the town was so full that they had stay with the animals; Mary even gave birth to Jesus in a stable and he had to sleep in a manger! To top that all off, these filthy shepherds came later than night ranting and raving about how angels had appeared to them and told them that Jesus was the Messiah. I imagine the family laughed and laughed about that crazy night. I also imagine his family kept a wary eye on him – such a dramatic start is usually a sign for more drama to come.
So if our birth stories say something about us, I wonder what Jesus’ family thought his birth story said about him. First, they must have known that Jesus would be no stranger to scandal: his conception was scandalous and he would continue to scandalize the faithful with his radical teachings and way of life. Second, they could probably see that Jesus and the government would be in constant conflict. That suspicion is immediately confirmed when his family has to flee to Egypt to avoid persecution. We know that later Jesus would have many a run-in with leaders who do not like people calling Jesus a King. Third, Jesus’ family probably imagined that Jesus would always be very grounded and a friend of the poor. His birth was about as poor as you can get, including those first visitors, the poor, lowly shepherds.[i] Finally, perhaps Jesus’ family believed that Jesus would inspire others. The clues were many: from his mother who ponders things in her heart, to shepherds who praise and glorify God for all they see and hear, to angels who come in multitudes with a glorious song.
Although we know how Jesus’ story ends, we do not really celebrate his entire life story today. Instead, we celebrate his birth, and the hope that comes along with that celebration. We celebrate the hope that, in fact, Jesus’ life will be so radically different, welcoming, and forgiving that we will be glad to call him our Messiah. We celebrate the hope that Jesus really will be a different kind of King than our earthly kings. We celebrate the hope that Jesus really will continue to be a friend to the poor – because that means that we all have the chance to be loved by Jesus, no matter what our lot in life. And we celebrate the hope that Jesus will inspire us to greatness too. Tonight we celebrate the hope and the promise of this Savior who begins life as we all do – a child born to a family who will retell his birth story over and over again.
But tonight we also celebrate our own birth stories and the promise that our own lives have. No matter what your birth story is, those initial signs about identity can always be used for good. That fighter for survival in childbirth might end up to be a fighter for others’ survival later in life. That adventuresome baby’s birth might lead to a life of reaching out of one’s comfort zone to share the Good News with others. Even that stubborn kid might find a way to push back when others tell her something is impossible. Our birth stories might point to the types of people we will become, but we determine how those traits will be used. God intends for all those traits – the Zen-like person and the person always in a rush – to be used for goodness. Our invitation this Christmas is to consider how God is calling us to use our own birth story for goodness. The birth stories themselves can never change; but how they are interpreted, what we do with them, is always open for reinterpretation. Amen.
[i] Charles M. Wood, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 118.