TEXT: Luke 2:1-20
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)
Today, certainly, is a good day to sing “Hallelujah!” Today, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus. In fact, we’ll continue celebrating it for almost another two weeks! That’s the way it works with the birthday of a king; one day just isn’t enough.
Yet, how different that is from the real birthday, two thousand years ago. At the time, only a handful of shepherds paid attention. In fact, Jesus’ birth seemed of so little importance that no one kept a record of it. As a result, we don’t even know the actual date. December 25th is really just an arbitrary choice, because the Church wanted to mark the day somewhere on the calendar.
The details about Christ’s birth are pretty sketchy—and they tell a very simple story. According to Luke’s gospel, Jesus was born in a stable behind a hotel in Bethlehem. His mother wrapped him in “swaddling clothes”—bands of cloth—and laid him in a manger—a feeding trough for animals.
We’ve heard the Christmas story so often that we almost know it by heart. It’s a familiar, simple story. But, of course, our usual celebration of Christmas is anything but simple.
This time of year is chock-full of stuff: family traditions; economic success for merchants; in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice; the pause between the end of the lunar year and the longer solar year; and our year-end tendency to want to evaluate the old year before embarking on the new one. All these things—along with songs and stories about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman—find their way into our consciousness, our decorations, our gift-buying habits, and our expectations.
Our culture treats Christmas with massively sentimental attention. And during this time of pandemic, when so many of us cannot celebrate in the ways we’re used to … well, we still crave an outlet for that sentimentality, don’t we? Even if it’s a solitary activity, like watching too many bad Christmas movies on TV. Or re-reading Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with its ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Whatever our own festivities look like this year, we want them to match these familiar sentimental visions.
Now, I want to tell you: none of this is bad. Traditions are good things; they instruct us, they delight us, and they remind us of our values. But, let’s face it: Christmas trees and Rudolph have nothing to do with the birth of a Saviour. If you really want to look at “Christmas past,” imagine the morning after Jesus was born …
The stable is full of animals. The cow is loudly asking to be milked. The place smells like wet straw and manure. Stunned and exhausted new parents wake up to an entirely different reality from yesterday. There’s a baby in their lives now. They rub their eyes.
“Were those really angels making all that noise last night? And what about those shepherds? They found us in this dim little stable because, they said, a crowd of angels showed them the way!”
This newborn boy, asleep on the straw in the manger, is somehow the cause of all this commotion. Sure, every baby is a miracle, but this baby …
Mary and Joseph can’t stop staring at him, touching him, holding him, like any new parents … but they know that God has big plans for this child … and maybe they’re more than a little afraid. This nativity scene—the morning after the dazzling holy night—is about more than simply the end of Mary’s pregnancy and the start of a new family. The infant in the manger is none other than Emmanuel—“God-with-us.”
The people who walked in darkness have, indeed, seen a great light—and we’re not just talking about the shepherds and the star. No. The light emanating from this sleepy domestic scene is the light of God, come to be with us, come to dwell in us, come to transform us.
As faithful people, we are called to respond to this new reality. We are called to learn from Jesus, to emulate him—to ourselves become bringers of God’s light.
One of the best-loved of all Christmas hymns is “Joy to the World.” You likely sang those words on Christmas Eve: “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!”
Did you catch that? Right in verse one, it says: “The Lord is come.” It sounds very much like the Easter proclamation, when we say, “Christ is risen.” Christ is risen, indeed.
“The Lord is come” Jesus comes to us here and now, not only on that first Christmas so long ago. The universe shifted the moment that Jesus was born. It shifted toward the reality of God’s presence—his loving presence in and with and for his children.
If we believe that message, then—as Christians—we are challenged to do something. We are called to do “the work of Christmas”—to make God’s loving presence real, here and now. Christmas present should look different—and better—than Christmas past.
The other part of the first verse of “Joy to the world” that challenges us is this: “let every heart prepare him room.” How have we done that? How have we made room for the living Christ? It seems to me the only way for us to “prepare him room”—the only way that really matters—is to make room in our hearts for Jesus to challenge us and change us, to develop us and transform us into Christ’s own hands and feet and strength and love.
To “prepare him room” means giving up some of our attachment to having a perfect Christmas that satisfies every tradition and fulfills every wish. To prepare him room means, perhaps, less retail and more giving; less concern about having a loaded dinner table and more concern for feeding the hungry.
This year, I think, making room in our hearts for Jesus has meant much less whoopla and more real celebration of who Jesus is. It’s been about honouring the one who is always being born in our hearts, and who desires always to be with us. And the way we do that is through selfless giving and humble service. In 2020—and, ironically, perhaps we have the coronavirus to thank for this—that has been our “Christmas work.”
But you know, Christmas isn’t over when the Boxing Day sales conclude. Christmas isn’t going to end with Epiphany, or Lent, or Easter. Not really. Christmas is God’s continuing gift of his presence with us. Christmas is our challenge to prepare room in our hearts, and in our lives. So … what about Christmas future?
As we pack up our ornaments for another year—as we fill the garage with boxes labeled “Christmas”—let’s think about how our lives in January and February can continue the work of Christmas.
As we pull the tinsel off the tree and put away the “Frosty the Snowman” videos, let’s try imagine who is lost, who is hungry, who needs peace … in March and April.
After the shepherds are packed away in their box with their sheep, let’s try to remember their surprise and joy. Let’s find a way to offer the song of the angels to someone who needs it … in June.
In his familiar poem, “The Work of Christmas,” Howard Thurman puts it this way:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.*
Merry Christmas, everybody!
* Thurman, Howard, The Mood of Christmas, Friends United Press, 1973, p. 106.