A Familiar Story

Scripture can be found here...

It is such a familiar story. And we all can conjure up the scene: the stable, lit somehow, by soft flickering lamplight; the fragrant hay, offered up by the gentle cow for a bed; the protective father bending near; the mother in blue—always blue!—cradling her precious newborn baby. The whole scene is bathed in a holy glow. The music rises: Silent Night, Holy Night! Christ the Savior is born!

We can see it. We HAVE seen it!

And yet... it is a strange story, isn't it? Taking into account stories told in two gospels, a columnist in today’s Washington Post wrote, “Infertility, divorce, shame, mass murder, astrologers, injustice and doubt: these are a few of the topics that appear” in the story of our Savior’s birth. His advice? Don’t sanitize it.[i]

So, for instance, what does that mean, that “all the world should be registered”? One thing it means is that, in the world in which this story took place, the Roman Empire is in charge. It doesn't matter that your wife is 39 weeks pregnant. There is no deferral, as if you were being called to jury duty. There is no option to submit a note from your obstetrician. She will have to walk or ride a donkey 70 miles or so, because Caesar wants to make sure he has you on the tax rolls.

And what does it mean, there is no room at the inn? This is your hometown! Shouldn't being descended from King David count for something, make you at least a minor celebrity of some kind? Can't you maybe stay in a small palace somewhere? Evidently not. The math is against you, the roughly forty generations since he lived, suggesting that David's descendants might well have been, well, everybody, and the fact that all those everybodies are in town, too.

And then there’s the birth. Everyone loves a good birth story—we love telling them and we love hearing them. But this is a birth to a young mother—very young, a teenager, probably—newly married to a man who most likely doesn’t have a lot of experience birthing livestock, let alone babies (remember, Joseph is a carpenter, not a herdsman). This is a birth to a young mother whose own mother, sisters, female relatives of any kind, don’t seem to be anywhere nearby.

This is such a familiar story. A story as familiar as powerlessness. As familiar as pain, of labor, and birth. As familiar as not having a space to call your own, even when you are at your most vulnerable.

The birth of the Savior: Why this story, told this way? What are we supposed to learn from it? What does it tell us about God?

One thing it tells us is, God sees human suffering and injustice. All these things happen under the rule of this one and that one, the governor Quirinius and Caesar Augustus, watching from their perches of power and moving people around like chess pieces.

God sees, and God knows, and then God’s story, Jesus’ story, unfolds with language stolen from the Empire: Caesar Augustus was called “Lord.” Caesar Augustus was called “Savior.” Caesar’s armies were called “hosts.” And Caesar sent bulletins about military victories around to every city and town and rural outpost, and the messengers cried out: “Good News! Tidings of Great joy!” And the reign of Caesar Augustus ushered in the Pax Romana, a time of so-called “peace” that actually consisted of continuous expansion of territory by military strength. We’ve seen that.

But here, in our familiar story, the only armies are made up of angels. And here, “Lord” and “Savior” refer, not to the one in residence in a Roman palace, but to an infant who has borrowed a feedbox for a bed. And it’s this child—this freshly born, just now cleaned up, umbilical cord newly cut, tiny, helpless child—who is the subject of the “good news.” And the first to hear are the poor, shepherds with only the starry sky for a roof. They are the first to hear: “Peace on earth, goodwill towards God’s beloveds.”

The birth of the Savior: Why this story, told this way? What does it tell us about God?

God comes to us, relinquishing all privilege, choosing to be born as the poorest of the poor.

God comes to us, not in power, but in powerlessness, completely dependent.

And yet, for all of this, God comes into the world, and it is a moment for joy. Now, nothing—nothing!—nothing can separate us from God and God’s love. God sees the suffering of humanity, and rather than fix it from afar (which, of course, God could do), proclaims: “The home of God is among God’s people. I will be in it with you. I will be born as you are born. I will live as you live. I will even die as you die, because I love you so.”

It is a familiar story, and yet, we need to make it unfamiliar, experience it as brand new, if it is to truly make its mark on us, to penetrate our hearts. It is so familiar that it risks being no more than a lovely tableau, a gossamer dream that vanishes by morning, like the dew on the grass. It is so familiar, we can forget: it is about flesh and blood—our flesh, our blood. It is not merely about a baby born 2000 years ago, but about that child of hope and promise being born again in us… and again, and again, as we allow him to make his life our own.

On this unseasonably warm Christmas Eve, a song has been tugging at me… The lyrics are a poem by a 17th century English cleric, who tried to capture the significance of the birth of Jesus by emphasizing how very, very unfamiliar, and unexpected, and yet utterly joyful a moment it was:

Gloomy night embraced the place
Where the noble infant lay;
The babe looked up and shewed his face,
In spite of darkness it was day!
It was thy day, sweet, and did rise,
Not from the East, but from thine eyes…

Welcome, all wonders in one sight,
Eternity shut in a span,
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man!
Great little one! whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.[ii]

Summer in winter, day in night. Familiar, and yet… Completely new. Maybe this is the year, as we experience our own summer in winter, for us to remember, to take the mystery into ourselves, just as we’ll take the communion bread in a few minutes. To imagine… to hope… to know…that with Christ born, among us, in us, the boundaries between heaven and earth are not as fixed as we think.[iii] In fact, heaven is here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] W. David O. Taylor, “Biblical birth narratives are weird and incredible. We can stop sanitizing them,” The Washington Post, December 24, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/24/biblical-birth-narratives-are-troubling-weird-and-incredible-we-can-stop-sanitizing-them-now/?tid=sm_tw.

[ii] Richard Crashaw (1613-1649), “Gloomy night embraced the place.”

[iii] Jan Richardson, “The Luminous Darkness: Searching for Solace in Advent and Christmas.” http://adventdoor.com/2015/12/17/this-luminous-darkness-searching-for-solace-in-advent-and-christmas/.