“Away in the manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head…”
There’s something magical about Christmas, whether it’s the lights, or carols, or the way that children’s faces shine with excitement. There is joy at Christmas. And there is also something wonderfully familiar about the rhythm of the season. I still tell the story about the year that my home church changed the Christmas eve service to preaching and a choir cantata and almost no opportunity for the congregation to sing the beloved carols… I felt cheated! Christmas carries its message of love and joy in part in the power of cultural traditions, in the expected repetition of the story. So, it’s a little stunning for us to stop and remember what scripture’s story of that first Christmas must have sounded like. Everything about the narrative is shocking, disruptive, perhaps even offensive!
Hear those words from the second chapter of Luke: “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” and then remember that those words were proclaimed to the shepherds and not to the kings. Shepherds were nobodies, they get described as smelly ne’er-do-wells, or as outsiders in the community. What’s clear is that this is not the group of people to whom anyone would expect this divine proclamation to be offered. That they are the ones travelling to pay homage to the messiah born in a cave to a scandalous young couple and laid among the animals should be a story that invites outrage or shock. Or maybe, if you can have a good sense of humor about such things, uproarious holy laughter. The Christmas story, like the Easter story, should turn our understanding of the world upside down.
Ironically, we live in a culture that much more closely resembles the powerful empire that Jesus was trying to transform than the community to which the Christmas story was made real. We take the message of a different way of being and turn it into a cute commercialized holiday that challenges none of our ways and only reinforces the brokenness of the world – the haves and have nots are cast in stark light yet again.
We should hear the proclamation that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” as a word of profound hope in a world that continues to be wracked with discord, distrust, and fear. That little child is born in all the wrong places proclaiming a different way. That light is Love that is humble and giving, that sees in the other not fear but hope and promise. The Christmas story is a gift that God offers us to draw us out of our cultural comfort zone to welcome the unpredictable divine.
For some months at church we have been talking about what God's radical hospitality looks like. One group with great passion has been challenging us to look at others through new eyes. The Inclusive Church Initiative has been asking all of us to journey in prayer with those whom the church and society have too often dismissed as being confused, sinful, or unwelcome. These conversations have caused great tension for many as we have been challenged to affirm the value of each person so that we can continue together on the journey of drawing all our lives closer to God. Unfortunately, even as the Inclusive Church Initiative is encouraging us to open our hearts and souls to the LGBTQ community, there are those who are feeling that this welcome means that there is no place for them and their values. We will lose a great deal as a congregation and as a witness to God's love if we don’t recognize that all our perspectives are valued as a part of the journey.
There was an inspirational segment by Ram Dass that crossed my desk speaking to my hope: “When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree, and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.
The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘you are too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. and so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”
As we come into this season of Christmas and celebrate God's love being born among us, I wonder if we would be willing to open ourselves to God's wonder just the way it is? Will we find room for Jesus to be born in our hearts if it means that we accept ourselves as loved not because of what we’ve accomplished or how much we’re worth, but merely because we are a beloved child of God? Will we accept ourselves and the other as a reflection of God no matter what, even if the encounter feels like it leads us to a feed-trough among the animals? Or how about if that’s the neighbor whom we’ve never met? Are we willing to let God's grace break through our cultural barriers and expectations? As we sing our carols and light the lights and smile at the children, I pray that God's love might break us open in unexpected ways this season.
God's Christmas message is love, period, go tell it on the mountain… and everywhere!