How many times have we heard the story about the simple shepherds in the field watching over their flocks at night, and suddenly appearing in a starlit sky are an angel and the heavenly host proclaiming good news to all of humankind, and then the shepherds go and follow the directions of the angels and they find Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus lying in the straw surrounded by the silent, innocent benediction of the animals in the stable? This story has rolled its way through the darkness of last night, across the whole wide world, from church to church, pulpit to pulpit, community to community, until now it is our turn to tell it.
But it is not just a story; it is our story. It is our beginning and our end. It defines us. Without it we would be lost. I think our lives would have little meaning. It is our story of the revelation of God. Mary is the bearer of God, but the baby will always belong to us. I want us to hold on to the earthly, fleshly Jesus for as long as we can. John Philip Newell, the Celtic theologian, says that the births of his four children are still the most astounding and special moments of his life. He describes how he held each newborn up to his face after they emerged from the womb and smelled their skins. He said in their skins he could smell the freshness of God. Jesus makes God real for us; we are comforted and hopeful by his incarnation. He brings us back to childhood—every Christmas, year after year after year. The birth of the Christ Child is our story of our own birth.
Our story is about the redemption of the world.
Our story is about singing praises to our heavenly God, who created us out of dust.
Our story is about this God who became human, one of us.
And yet our story is not over, not complete, not fulfilled. That’s true at the level of the Christmas story too which began with the Annunciation. The Christmas story has slogged through morning sickness, and hormonal changes, and nine months of pregnancy – pretty ordinary stuff, hardly festive. Then, one day, the story bursts forth into joy. That’s Christmas: out of quiet, humble, simple beginnings comes an event that rocks the world.
You know, the truth is no matter how avant-garde or forward thinking or progressive we may believe ourselves to be as Christians, every Christmas we all turn into traditionalists. If you are like me, you are an absolute sentimentalist or should I say sap when it comes to Christmas. You’ve heard me say this before. I don’t want Christmas to ever change. I don’t want to ever stop hearing the birth story in Luke’s Gospel. I never want to stop seeing that image of the baby Jesus in the manger. I want to feel that again and again. I am nostalgic for it. It is comforting to me. I never ever, ever, want my Christmas to change. But here’s what I have discovered along my faith journey—the more we hope things will stay the same the more things change. It’s inevitable with God.
And God has a knack for irony. “There is an irony of our faith that on the very feast of the nativity of Christ Jesus, when we so much want nothing to ever change, we are, in fact, celebrating the greatest moment of change in human history. We are, in fact, celebrating a moment when God entered into history and nothing was or is the same.
“Incarnation means change. It means God coming into our time and into our space and into our lives and into our comfort zone and shaking things up and making them be recreated in a new way and challenging us to confront change and to be active in doing something, being co-creators with God in the world around us.” (1)
Christmas is nothing but a constant celebration year after year after year because Jesus the Christ child comes again and again and again. No year is ever the same because of this simple fact. And every year we are still engaged with God because of the love. Both the manger and the cross are symbols of God’s infinite love for us. The babe in the manger is God’s love, in person, on earth. The Christmas message is that there is more mercy in God than sin in us. Sometimes I think God is not too hard to believe in, just too good to believe in, we being strangers to such goodness.
My hope is that we not fear the new but be active agents of bringing and hosting the new as God brings it into the world every day, every week, every month, every year, and, yes, every Christmas. Why can’t we be the incarnation of “new” this year? And in our newness, our rebirth, why don’t we make a commitment to be the person God created us to be? You know that person. I know that person. Our newness and goodness are one in the same.
So what do I suggest that you do on this Christmas Day? What do I suggest that you do to celebrate this wonderful moment of change in your life? I suggest that you wrap yourself up in Christmas day like I’m going to do. That you once again enjoy those visions of angels and shepherds and the manger and the baby in the straw and the animals and Mary and Joseph and keep it exactly the way it’s always been for you.
Just today, just for this one day, let it be comforting and traditional. Let it be familiar and warm and loving. There’s time enough tomorrow for you and me to step out in our new incarnation and reclaim our gifts and go to work with God to face change and make change for the glory of God’s name.
But for today, for this one special day, let us relax into the peace that is holy and into a time where time itself seems to stand still. So let us now lay aside every weight, all our frenetic, feverish bustling and acquiring, and adore the wonder of this love. The scripture says that Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. In this way Mary shows us how to take in this holy birth. Don’t analyze, adore. Don’t explain, worship. Just be in the moment. Let Christmas act through you. Let the Word fill you with wordless grace and peace. If we would come to know the mystery of the Incarnation, we must get there through adoration. In the spirit of Christmastide, come, every last one of us, and let us adore Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1. “Sermon for Christmas Day” The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston. December 24, 2005. Luke 2:1-20. The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston was the president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, 1999-2008.