Christmas Eve by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-20

Psalm 96

 

 

To you is born this day a saviour.

We are in a room with a dirt floor. Electric light will not be invented for almost two thousand years. And so we see by the flame of a single flickering candle. Furnaces will not be invented for about the same length of time. And so what keeps us warm are the animals shuffling quietly about around us in the shadows.

In the midst of the room is a young woman, a teenager really. She has just given birth and, like so many new mothers before and since, her face is the picture of exhausted jubilation, the picture of love. Beside her is a man, a number of years older, his face lined but smiling.

The man and the woman whisper to one another. They whisper about how life will never be the same for them again. And how that change is the greatest gift that they could have hoped to receive.

In the woman’s lap is the child. Six pounds, seven ounces, a tuft of dark, still damp hair on his head, the yellow stub of the umbilical cord tied off with rough string. The child stretches and shifts, looks around at the world with that strange, searching expression that babies sometimes have. And then he latches onto the woman’s breast and begins to drink.

In a few hours, the shepherds will come with their songs and their questions. And then a few days later the Magi with their expensive and confusing gifts. But right now. Now, Baby and Mother and Father are quiet and alone with the animals. Even the sheep are silent.

The man whispers: He is the most beautiful baby in the world.

And the woman replies: He is the one that the angel told me about.

A look passes between them for which there is not quite a name. It is something between awe and fear and wonder and joy.

To you is born this day a saviour.

So. I didn’t grow up in with religion as part of my life. I was in a university English class before I first opened the Bible. I was 22 years of age when I first risked entering into a church. I was 33 years of age when I first self-identified as a Christian, when I was baptised.

And yet, as a young man, something drew me to church and to Christmas in particular. I wonder if it is the same thing – or maybe, the same combination of things – that drew you here tonight.

Part of what drew me in was music. Church is one of the last places left in our culture in which we sing together. And I love to sing. Part of it was a longing to formally mark the solstice, to formally mark the days getting longer, the return of the light. Part of it was a sense that I needed a set of practices and symbols within which to respond to love and loss, within which to respond to the changes of life. But the thing that I want to concentrate on this evening, maybe the biggest part of what brought me to church on Christmas, has to do with the story that we just heard. A big part of what called me into a worshipping community was a deep and ineffable intuition that telling the story of Jesus’ birth together will change us, that this story can and will transform us.

To you is born this day a saviour. 

Here’s the challenge. Most of us – including those of us who didn’t grow up in church – have heard the story of Jesus’ birth so many times, we have watched it in so many cartoons and seen it on so many greeting cards, that we are at risk of not hearing it at all, we are at risk of our brains saying: I know this tale already. I’m going to save some energy by switching off for a little while it is told.

I’d like to see tonight if you and I can override our brains’ energy saving feature, if we can hear this story anew again, if we can be surprised by it again. And in doing so, I’d like to see if we can venture an answer to the question of what it is that has called us here.

Notice.

As you look around the room with the one candle where Mary and Joseph and the animals sit with that impossibly small newborn, notice four things that make this story dangerous and wonderful and surprising and freeing.

First, notice the family’s faces and hands. Their skin is brown. Notwithstanding the thousand and one oil painting and stained glass windows that, in the coming two millennia, will depict these three as whiter than fresh cream, as white than new snow, there is nothing at all white about this family. They are browned-skinned residents of a country in which privilege and power belongs to power of empire, to the pale-skinned soldiers who occupy their land.

Second, when Mary puts her newborn down, notice where the baby sleeps. Manger is an old-school word that means trough. Then, as now, there is always room in the inn if your pockets are deep. But Mary and Joseph’s family is poor, perhaps even destitute. They cannot afford to stay in a house, they cannot afford a crib, they cannot afford to call a midwife to usher their child into this world. To you is born this day a saviour. And there he is, lying in the trough. Later on in his ministry, when Jesus grows up and says, “Just as you have done it to these least of these, you did it to me,” he will not be speaking from abstraction. Jesus knows deep, generational poverty from the very beginning.

Third – and this one is a big deal, given what is in the news at the end of 2015 – notice that the members of the holy family are refugees. It is the Gospel of Matthew that tells us that Mary and Joseph and Jesus will soon to flee to Egypt in order to escape Herod’s murderous rage. Like millions of other refugees, they will load everything that they have onto a horse or a donkey or a raft and go forth into a foreign country, seeking safety and hope.

Last of all, look at the infant, all six pounds, seven ounces of him. And then hear the staggering claim that scripture makes about him. This is the Son of God. Or, as we shall say in the Creed in but a few minutes, this is very God of very God. God is right here in Mary’s arms, God is right here with all of the limitations and indignities and joys that comes with having a body.

To you is born this day a saviour.

This is the story that called me into church at age 22 and, eventually, that called me into faith. This is the story that calls you and me here tonight.

I believe that we are here because, no matter how much repetition may have dulled our ears to this story, some old part of us understands that this story changes everything, that telling this story together changes everything. The Son of God could have been born white. But look at his skin, look at what he chose. The Son of God could have been born in a palace, amongst wealth, surrounded by servants. But look at him in the trough, look at what he chose. The Son of God could have been born safe from a murderous empire. But look at his family getting ready to flee from extremism, look at what he chose.

And the Son of God could have skipped all of the hardship of being made human, the pain and the sickness and the sensuous wonder of having skin with which to touch the world and with which to be touched. The skin with which he eat and hug his friends and heal and through which he will be nailed to the cross. The Son of God could have descended on a cloud, a radiant light. But no. No. Look at what he chose.

As John has it, the word became flesh and lived among us.

Maybe this is uncomfortable news: we are so used to a sanitised and safe version of this story, a version in which the straw around Jesus is clean enough to eat off of. But uncomfortable though it may be, this story is also good news. It is the best news that there is. Because this story proclaims that God is not distant, that God is not removed from suffering, that God is not unfamiliar with love and loss. This story proclaims that God is found in the margins, that God is found among the forgotten. This story proclaims that God is deeply, personally invested in the struggle for justice, that God knows that struggle firsthand. This story proclaims that it is good to be alive, good to have a body. This story proclaims that, no matter our circumstances, no matter what happens to us, how good or how hard our lives become, you and I may turn to God and say with confidence, You know what this is like.

To you is born this day a saviour.

Mary and Joseph look at one another across the dirt floor. Joseph whispers,

He is the most beautiful baby in the world.

And Mary replies: He is the one that the angel told me about.

This is the child who is going to change the world.