St. Luke’s Church, Philipsburg, NJ
The Rev. Anne E. Kitch
Christmas Eve 2019
|St. Luke's Pageant 2019|
Are you ready for Christmas? Our fabulous parish administrator and bookkeeper asked me this on Saturday as we were reviewing bulletins one last time. I think it surprised her when I said, Yes. “That’s because I have let go of five things,” I told her. This is my secret—I am never going to be ready for Christmas, so at some point I stop trying and let the messiness be what it is.
Christmas is difficult. Christmas is glorious. Christmas is stressful. Christmas is about family or food or festivities. Or grief, or loneliness, or lostness. Or Jesus.
Christmas is about all these things, because Jesus is about all these things. There is no joy or trouble where we can be that Jesus is not. That’s the whole point. That’s the whole point of Jesus being fully human as well as fully divine, of the Word becoming flesh, of the Incarnation—the embodiment of God in frail humanity.
Jesus, being fully human, had a fully human birth. And this doesn’t only mean that our audacious God put the salvation of humankind into the hands of two very vulnerable human beings who were first-time parents of a newborn. Even before that, God had to count on both Mary and Joseph saying, yes. The salvation of the world depended on their faithfulness.
And while our gospels are full of what made this a Holy night—in Luke ‘s version we get angels choirs, in Matthew’s version we get a sacred star—what they don’t tell is the ordinary stuff that our pageant and Christmas cards and classic works of art leave out. Actually, a Christmas card with cheery snowmen on it may get close to being right, because the birth of Jesus was in mnay ways ordinary.
Mary and Joseph were set apart…and they were not. To begin with, they were not the only ones traveling to Bethlehem at that time. There was a government census that required everyone in Judea to travel back to their hometown in order to be registered. Everyone. So all those adult children who had created lives for themselves in some other city were on their way home. Mary and Joseph likely traveled with a caravan on the roads from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey of 90 miles up and down hilly country, and Mary was surely not the only pregnant woman around. I imagine her receiving advice and comfort from older women who had given birth before. Nor were they the only couple trying to find a place to stay in a small city that was full of travelers.
And the manger was not in a stable outback somewhere, but in a room of a family home where animals were kept nearby. And Mary, surrounded no doubt by friendly beasts, surely also had the help of a local midwife and the women in the family.
In other words, it was about community.
The extraordinary were there too, but the heavenly host of angels were not by the manger but rather shining all their glory on some shepherds out in the wilderness beyond town, doing the ordinary business of watching their flocks. They’re the ones who are told the Messiah is born and they hurry off to Bethlehem to see for themselves, finding Mary and Joseph and the baby, and telling them and all else who are there and anyone who would listen what they had learned from the angels. And everyone marvels at what the shepherd tell. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
And by the way, the magi are not in Luke’s story at all. They show up in the gospel of Matthew and not on the night when Jesus was born, but perhaps even a year later when Jesus was a young child (we hear that story on Epiphany, January 6th).
So our manger scenes and our Christmas pageants get it wrong…and get so much right. In fact, our pageant this afternoon was exactly the kind of ordinary, loving, somewhat messy community which embodies the love of Jesus.
When we gather together, we are both human and holy. This is what it means to be a church, to be a community of God. It is to travel together, to become companions, to find places for those who are lost or lonely or hurting. To laugh and play together, to help one another, to gather together to get through hard times and to celebrate new life.
We don’t always get it right. But we are here tonight in part because we are all reaching for something more and we know that doing it together helps. Faithful walking is not the same thing as perfect fulfillment. Faithfulness includes striving and forgiveness and acceptance and renewal.
One of my favorite carols is In the Bleak Midwinter, especially verse 4:
What can I give him, poor as I am,
if I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him, give my heart
What can we give to Jesus, what can we give to each other, is what we can—ourselves. Welcome to the messiness of Christmas. Welcome to the glory. Welcome to one another.