Because Luke is a doctor, I always picture him coming out of the birthing suite with the good news of Christ’s arrival. However, in looking at Biblical history, we know for certain that this was not the case. Mary went into labor among horses and cows, dirty straw that could have been Jesus’ undoing by infection alone. As I have said before, one of the miracles of Jesus’ birth was not that he was born a savior, but that he lived… despite odds that seem insurmountable today. Yet, it was foretold by Isaiah that despite all of the things that could have gone wrong, the baby would eventually reunite Israel and bring peace and justice to the Jews who had waited for so long to see it.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
I will never read this passage in the entirety of my life without hearing Imogene Herdman in my head saying, “my God! He’ll never get out of first grade if he has to write all that…”
At the same time, I also realize that this is another of Jesus’ baby pictures, ones that clearly paint his picture with words years before he was born… another candidate for the first page in his baby book. Jesus was the answer to many people’s prayers for hundreds of years, and I have to wonder if in all this prophesying, did they know what awful circumstances in which this miracle would occur? I’m betting on “no.” For if there was a Savior to be born, surely it would be one of speculation and intention. Jesus would be either born at home, or at the very least, in someone’s home.
But alas, no.
In other words, shit happens.
If you think I am using profanity just for the shock value, I’m not. It is a clear double-edged sword. Joseph and Mary had to travel and it was non-negotiable, because ignoring a decree from Caesar Augustus would have been……….. unwise. Life got in the way of Mary’s pregnancy, and there was nothing to be done about it. Additionally, we are talking about a baby being born in a stable. The smell must have been intolerable, and thinking that there wasn’t cow and horse manure all over the place takes away from the horror of the situation, but doesn’t make it any less true. When talking about humble beginnings, I’m not sure it gets any worse than this.
However, in darkness, there is always light if you look for it. Angels appeared to shepherds watching their flock, and at first, they were afraid. The angels quieted their fears, and they become some of the first people to know that the Christ-child has arrived, and among the first to spread the news. The angels did not choose to appear in the middle of the Sanhedrin shouting “I TOLD YOU SO.” They appeared to the poor and lowly, who took the angels’ words to heart:
…they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
Shepherds were among the least-paid and least-respected people in their society, and at the same time, when they talked about the angels and the baby, people believed them. It is another miracle in the birth of the Christ-child, that people so poor all of the sudden became the people owning the room, captivating audiences with their stories of seeing angels walk among them, and making haste toward the manger to see the baby for themselves. They are Jews who would have read Jesus’ baby pictures for themselves, and I have no doubt that when they arrived at the manger, it was a moment of true awe and an absolutely overflowing river of emotion. I can imagine all the “it’s him! It’s really him! I never thought I would see this moment, and now it’s here!” The quote that runs through me when I see this picture in my mind’s eye also comes from Isaiah:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.
It is as if Isaiah also predicted this moment of shepherds walking in the dark, literally, watching over their sheep… and then a “multitude of heavenly hosts” shows up, bringing an incredible amount of light with them.
Notice, and really take it in, that the light was not given to people who already had enough through their ability to be financially solvent… the light was given to people who needed it the most.
My questions to you this Christmas Eve are whether someone has brought you light when you needed it the most… and whether you have brought light to someone else. Just as Jesus was sent into the world as a tiny baby, our light does not begin with a roaring campfire, but a tiny spark. In later years, Jesus would preach about only having faith the size of a mustard seed, and nowhere is there a better analogy for the way he arrived. He did not suddenly become an all-powerful professional Christian superhero. He was tempered and refined in his faith, learning to speak with holy authority over time and making mistakes in the process. He was sent to earth to be a human, and despite all of the Christian theology that will tell you he was perfect, my take is “not so much.” We are called to love Jesus for everything that he was, including the only record we have of his childhood.
We’ll talk more about it on Sunday, because the Lectionary covers Jesus’ disappearance at 12 into the temple. In that pericope, I believe Jesus’ humanness showed in the way he treated his parents. He would have known The Ten Commandments, and “honor thy father and mother” is right up there. When Mary and Joseph finally (FINALLY) find Jesus, he says two things that make me know he was a tween complete with implied eyeroll.
The first is that when he was found, he scoffed by saying (and I’m paraphrasing here) “why wouldn’t you know I was in my Father’s house?” To me, it comes across as petulant, along with the clearly stated “you’re not my real dad” for Joseph. I cannot even imagine how Jesus’ parents felt in that moment, but for me I can’t read those scriptures without wanting to wash Jesus’ mouth out with soap.
Light did not come for Jesus as a fully-formed set of stadium bulbs. Light came to Jesus the same way it does for us… sparks that magnify exponentially until hopefully, we are able to spread the same amount of peace that he did.
Advent is not necessarily a penitential season, but it does move toward the solstice, the time when physical light returns to earth in longer and longer amounts, multiplying exponentially as well. It doesn’t always speak to the forgiveness of sins, but it does speak of turning inward, and learning how we can turn our darkness into sparks that multiply within ourselves. It is taking the darkness that lives within us and really looking at it, holding it out where we can see it in all its ugliness and letting go to make room for the tiny baby that lives within us. We start with the baby every year, but where are we going to finish?
The Rev. Dr. Susan Leo says that Christmas Eve is the one night where the membrane between heaven and earth becomes so thin that we can reach up and touch it. What kind of peace would we receive if we actually took the time to do it? What would happen if we, as the people called to be Christ in the world, took the time to reflect on this enormous gift?
What kind of gifts would it inspire you to give? None of them cost a thing, because remember… the people who were given the light of Christ first didn’t have two mites to rub together in the first place. The gifts given to them by the angels were sparks of belief that they, in turn, gave to others.
On this night, the night of all nights, make room for the baby. There is no better way to see hope than through the eyes of a child.