So. It is the end of 2017. We are in the Pacific Northwest. This is a time and place in which many of us are indifferent to church or ambivalent about church or allergic to church. And yet it is Christmas Eve and we are here. In church.
Well, maybe our parents or another family member dragged us here. Maybe we are here out of habit or tradition. Maybe we are here out of the amorphous sense that this is just what you do on the day before you open your presents.
But maybe there is something else.
Maybe there is an old part of ourselves that senses that coming here on this night matters, that if we let it, what we do here together might change us.
We gather to sing together, something that we do less and less of in our culture; to sing in 2017 without being a professional musician or, at least, on a reality TV show is an almost subversive act. We gather to pray together, to engage in that naïve mystery via which we whisper into the dark and dare to hope that someone or something will hear us. We gather together to share in a meal at this table, a meal in which we will encounter the absurd and impossible and glorious claim that in bread and wine we will meet God.
And we gather to tell a story. About a family. About a journey. About a newborn child.
I have a friend who comes to church just about every Sunday. But when you sit down with him in a moment of safety, in a moment of candour he will tell you:
I don’t actually believe.
And then my friend goes on:
But I come to church anyway because I think it matters.
I try to live my life as though the stories that I hear in the Bible were true.
You know what? I wonder, sometimes, if my friend believes more than he allows. Because living your life as though the stories of the Bible were true actually sounds like a pretty good definition of discipleship to me, a pretty good definition of being a Christian to me.
Tonight, we tell the story of Jesus’ birth. And those of us who study scripture closely have encountered certain questions about this story early and often. In particular, we have regularly encountered the question: is the account of Jesus’ birth as we find it in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke historical? Did it really happen? Or is this something that got made up by Jesus’ followers later, was it an effort to assign retroactive glory to what was, in reality, a pretty typical birth?
That’s an okay question, I guess. Maybe it’s even an important question. But I think that, sometimes, we have focused on it so heavily that we have missed a still more important question, a better question, the question that my friend who doesn’t believe poses:
What would it mean if this story were true? What would it mean to live your life as though it were true?
Listen again. The story goes like this:
There is a young couple who live in a dusty forgotten town in a dusty and forgotten corner an occupied land. The couple lives every day with the indignity of occupation, with the danger and the fear of violence, with the possibility that the soldiers who walk their streets will draw out their weapons and erect their crosses and dig out their bloody hammers and nails. The couple lives as well with another kind of indignity, that of poverty. The original Greek in the Bible says that the young man, Joseph, is a tekton, a word that we have traditionally translated as “carpenter.” But scholars tell us that a better translation of tekton in English would be something like “day labourer.” Joseph, in other words, is the brown-skinned man whom you see on the side of the road, his hard hat in his hands and his boots on his feet, hoping to be hired for a day of pushing a wheelbarrow or digging a hole or carrying drywall.
Notwithstanding the constant threat of violence with which they live, notwithstanding the poverty which they endure, Joseph and his fiancé – her name is Mary – are planning on engaging in the act of wild hope which is getting married.
Time passes. Joseph and Mary work – or not – as the whims of those with money dictate. They mostly keep hunger away from their door.
Mary is alone on the day that the angel comes. The angel asks her a question:
Will you bear the child who shall be the Son of God?
Now, Mary lives in a radically patriarchal culture. But notice: the angel, the messenger of God does not expect or require the presence or the permission of a man in order for Mary to make her decision. And notice as well: this is a decision, it is a choice. Mary is entirely free to say “no” to the angel. God respects her free will too much – much as God respects your free will and mine – to force this choice upon her.
Mary chooses to “yes.” And the story changes.
Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. He knows that he is not the father of this child. And he figures that this means the end of their engagement – maybe you and I would think the same in his shoes. But then he has a moment of clarity, a moment of understanding. It comes to him in a dream. Later, he will tell his friends that in the dream an angel appeared to him. Joseph wakes up and, more than two thousand years before the hashtag #believewomen will first appear, Joseph believes Mary. And they remain together.
The young couple is on the road when Mary’s time to give birth draws near. They can find nowhere to stay. This tends to be a big moment in pageants, the moment when a hostile and officious innkeeper bars the door. But all that scripture says is that there is no room at the inn. Maybe that means that all of the rooms are full. Or maybe it means that no one is willing to rent a room to a tekton and his wife.
Where do Mary and Joseph go as her contractions begin? Again, pageants and nativity sets and oil paintings encourage us to imagine the holy family in a barn with immaculately clean hay and several politely reverent sheep, but scripture is silent on this subject. It says only that the newborn’s crib is a manger – a fancy word for an animal’s trough. Perhaps, like scores of refugees and migrants before and since, the child is born at the side of the road.
And then God enters the world in the carnality of birth. If you have given birth, if you have attended a birth, you will know that birth is an occasion on which any veneer of genteelness and euphemism is torn away. It is a time of bodily fluids and intensity and sometimes pain. In a birth, the pretense via which we imagine ourselves to be separate from our bodies is gone. Birth is a moment in which we inescapably remember that human beings are animals.
And now there are three of them. Mary and Joseph and the one whom they will name Jesus. In the midst of all of the violence and the poverty and the dirt and the injustice, unto us a child is born.
The young couple holds God in their arms.
What would it mean to live your life as though that story were true?
Let’s try out a few answers.
Living as though that story were true would be to allow the possibility that one of God’s defining attributes might not be power but, rather, might be vulnerability. We may assume that God could enter the world however God saw fit: as a superhero, as a demi-God, as Hercules. But God enters the world as an infant, as a creature utterly dependent on other human beings in order to simply live. That suggests that God not only loves humanity but profoundly trusts humanity. That God says to us: I am willing to completely and unreservedly share with you in the beautiful, painful messiness of life.
Living as though that story were true would mean having a theology in which, if we want to look for God, we start by looking in amongst the poor and the marginalised and those who suffer. Again, we may assume that God could have been born the child of Caesar if God wanted. But God chooses to be born to a pair of people whom society has identified as losers. In Jesus’ birth, he embodies what he will later teach: that when we take care of the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked, we are doing these things to him.
Living as though this story were true is to declare that being alive and having a body is good. That, to borrow a line from Herbert McCabe, “matter matters.” It is weird that so much of Christianity is suspicious of the body and of sexuality in particular. Because to live as though the Incarnation were true is to know that God has skin in the game, literally. That in the Incarnation, God embodies God’s words from Genesis: in God’s image God created them, male and female. And God saw all that God had made and said it was good. The Incarnation announces that our flesh is holy.
Last of all – and this is not and cannot be an exhaustive list, but it is where I am going to end today – to live as though this story were true is to realise that, as Ron Rolheiser puts it, God is scandalously easy to see. We don’t need to go find a mystic on a mountaintop or in the desert, we don’t need to become monk or some other kind of professional religious person, we don’t need to do nothing but say prayers for the next ten years. In being born to everyday people, in being born as an everyday person, God declares that God is already here, in flesh, close at hand, everywhere.
Imagine living as though this story were true. What kind of freedom might we find, what kind of compassion might we find, what kind of love and joy and healing and belonging and meaning might we find?
Maybe that’s why we’re here in church, even in the Pacific Northwest, even in 2017.
This is where our story this evening ends, with the young couple holding their new child. Or no, that’s not right. This is where our story this evening begins, with the young couple holding their new child. They gaze at him in wonder and adoration and maybe even a certain amount of confusion. They gaze in love at the child whose presence on this earth is going to change everything.