Friday, December 26, 2003
(How Can We, As Brights, Speak With Christians About Christmas?)
Merry Christmas! Is everyone ready for Christmas? (To kids) Do you know what Christmas is? What is Christmas? What do we remember on Christmas? (Jesus’ birthday.)
Birthdays are pretty special, aren’t they? Do you have a birthday? When is it? Why do we celebrate birthdays? (Give them presents for answers—those $.25 eggs with silly-putty and what-not.)
Today is Advent Sunday. “Advent” means “arrival”—because we remember Jesus’ birth, and his arrival in the world. It is a very special day, because Jesus was a special man. Your birthdays are special because you are special people. Who celebrates your birthday? (People who care about you, and people you care about.) Birthday parties are special because of the people who participate in them, as well as because of the people they are for, right?
Was Jesus really born on December 25th? Yes? No? Maybe? Truth is, we don’t know. Nobody knows. But early Christians lived in a world where there weren’t so many other Christians yet. There were a lot of other religions, and those other religions had a holiday in the middle of the winter. Now Christians, being fun-loving people, wanted to celebrate too, so they started celebrating Jesus’ birth and joining in on the party.
Now these other people—let’s call them pagans—they had a holiday in the middle of winter. Now, winter is the worst time of the year to have a party! Remember, this is way back, before television and heaters and grocery stores and Christmas lights. Winter was dark, cold, wet, and food was scarce. Winter was dangerous, and a lot of people didn’t survive. But these pagans celebrated the middle of winter because they knew that no matter how cold it was, or how long and dark the night was, or how little food they had left over from the harvest back in October, that as of December 25th or so they were getting closer to Spring. That was the darkest and coldest, and that although there may still be dark and cold ahead, things were going to get better. No matter how bad things looked, they had reason to hope, because they knew that the days would get longer, the weather warmer, trees would start bearing fruit and fields would grow grain. They could look forward to better days to come. And that’s worth celebrating, sometimes even especially when things seem their darkest and coldest.
And the early Christians, they thought that that was a pretty good analogy to their feelings about Jesus. Jesus taught them that even when things seem their worst, there is reason to hope, things can get better. So celebrating the coming of Jesus into the world at this time seemed perfect.
Far from Passion
But here we are—you and I—some 2,000 years later, and most of us have heating in our homes and food in the cupboards and electric lights we can turn on or off anytime. Christmas for us isn’t about hoping that we’ll survive winter. Winter isn’t so dark and cold and foodless as it was for our ancestors. (Of course, for some people, precious little has changed since those times, and we should remember them, too.)
But for most of us in this room, celebrating Christmas isn’t about us surviving winter—we’ll probably survive, and even comfortably for the most part.
So, why do we like to celebrate Christmas so much?
I wonder if it isn’t because out of the whole Jesus story, this part is the easiest to read. That starry night in Jerusalem is far away from the betrayal, the trial, the execution. Little baby Jesus isn’t giving us the uncomfortable advice to give up all our possessions to the poor, to leave home and family to wander with him from town to town, to publicly and creatively resist corrupt politicians and their systems of government—and they’re all corrupt, and their systems oppressive. Little, sweet, innocent baby Jesus can’t even talk, and so like the shepherds and wise-men and lucky passers-by, we can approach and worship and praise without Jesus saying anything back to us. Jesus just has to take our praise, and we don’t have to do anything more than that.
In fact, as the story goes, Jesus isn’t even a regular baby—he doesn’t cry, doesn’t poop his diapers, isn’t bothered by the cold and damp of winter’s night in an animal stable. The Bible doesn’t mention anything about the actual birth, and so the picture we’re always given is one of a calm and pleasant Mary holding a clean, noble and silent Messiah. The whole holy family—Jesus, Joseph and Mary—are all perfectly loving, they don’t even mind all the strangers coming to see, no one’s hungry or cold or even uncomfortable.
We can forget, at least for a moment, about hunger or cold or discomfort. In the nativity scene, we can just be happy about Jesus. Jesus is born! Isn’t that great?! Things are going to get better.
Sometimes I wonder if the “nativity scene” wasn’t supposed to be called the “naivete scene”, because those of you who have had children can imagine quite a different scene. Births are pretty messy. And pretty-much everyone is uncomfortable to some degree or another. Sure, you’re happy—the word “joyful” probably doesn’t even begin to describe it, right? But you probably don’t stop worrying about bills and heat and food just because you have a baby. And who wouldn’t mind a bunch of strangers dropping by just after you gave birth to congratulate you and look at your baby? That’s a little weird, isn’t it?
But in the story of Jesus’ birth, there’s none of that. For a moment, there’s no worry, no care, no troublesome demands, no impropriety. The nativity scene tells us another truth: when a baby is born, we all want to see it, we all want to crowd in around it and love it, unconditionally, and our hearts are filled to overflowing with hope for the future of the world.
Our Own Nativity Story
As all of you know, our family had it’s own advent experience not too long ago. Four months ago, baby Grace was born.
Now, Jonathan and Marie, just like Joseph and Mary, had to leave their home to deliver their child. Jon and Marie didn’t go as far as Jerusalem, but they came across the ferry to our house, to wait for a while before going to the hospital. After a little bit, when they thought they were ready, Jonathan and Marie left for the hospital, and told Christie and me that they would call if anything was going to happen.
One hour passes. Two hours pass. Three hours pass. Finally we call Jonathan, and just like the voice of God to the wise men from afar, Jon said “you better get over here, something’s happening!” So we left. Now, remember, this is when Mars was the closest to the earth it had ever been in some 170,000 years or something, and apart from the moon it was supposed to be the brightest thing in the sky. Christie and I had been looking for it for the last couple days, and when we were on our way to the hospital there it was, not quite directly above little Gracie’s manger, but pretty close. We were following the star (or, planet, in this case) to the birth.
Sometime during all this, Jon managed to call his mother, who lives down in Olympia. And like the shepherds in the field on Christmas eve, she heard a voice in the night telling her that a child was going to be born, a very special child that she would want to see. So she left her sheep in the fields and ran to greet the newborn babe.
Christie and I had been sitting in the hallway for a couple hours when we decided to go to the waiting room to sleep on the chairs there—it was past 2am by this time. And at that instant, Jon’s mom arrives, goes racing by and is the first one of us all to see the brand-new baby Grace. Pretty soon, though, we were all gathered round the new family—the shepherd from afar, the wise guys who followed the star, Joseph, Mary and the little baby, the hope of the world.
At that moment, there was nothing else as important in the whole world as that baby, and being there to see her little arms raised in protest at being weighed and cleaned and cold.
A few weeks earlier, several of us had given the Shipley’s a bunch of onesies—those little baby jumper suits—that we decorated ourselves. Some of them tye-died, some embroidered. Some drawn on with magic markers. We took a lot of care and craft in making them, because we were preparing for the coming of little Grace, and so that as she grows her parents could literally clothe her with love—let little Grace be surrounded by our care and craft, let her be clothed with love.
Hope of the World
Christmas is a celebration at the birth of a baby, a chance to clothe ourselves and each other in love all over again.
As special as the story of Gracie’s birth is, I don’t think it’s all that unique. Every birth has a story of how special it is, about the awe and the wonder and the love.
The story of Jesus’ birth is another one of these—a celebration of the arrival of a baby, and what it means to all of us. Remember, that in the presence of a newborn baby, nothing matters so much as that child. That little human being is one tremendous bundle of helpless possibility, and deserves all the love we as a world can muster.
It defies logic—there’s no reason to love that baby—it hasn’t done anything yet except exist, and even that’s been mostly crying and pooping. Especially when the baby’s not even ours! Yet we are willing to love it, compelled to love it. And perhaps in that way, they show us how the world could be better, they show us how much we are endowed with the capacity to care.
There it is, a brand new person, entirely helpless and probably really upset, and surrounding it are all these people, all this love and hope and goodwill. How can we not be inspired by that story?
Perhaps it is a silly story. But if it is, then that is all the more reason to tell it again and again. It’s silly, but let’s face it, sometimes we need to be reminded how special our birthday was—how special your birthday was, and your birthday, and your birthday.
There’s no telling what that little child will be or do, and we love it anyway. We know that bad things could happen, but we say to hell with it, we’re going to love the kid anyway. If we can love through it, things will get better. It is one of the most powerful testaments to an inexplicable confidence in the future of humanity.
Christmas story is celebration of human possibility, a story of confidence; a story of unrestrained, undeserved and yet unflinching joy in the best of people.
As with Grace, or Reeve [another newborn baby in the congregation], or baby Jesus—we love them for no other reason than that they are; and in this way—as in many others—each of them embodies the hope of the world.