Sermon for Christmas Day (Year B) December 25, 2005. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas at Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
Let Us Go Now to Bethlehem
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel. Amen.
In most sermons, the preacher usually tries to find just the right anecdote or story to illustrate the main point. But on this holy morning, there’s no need for another story. Today we contemplate the big story, the core story of God’s love affair with humanity and all creation.
In deepest night, a town sits wrapped in darkness. The streets that echoed during the day with jostling crowds now lie in silence, open to the stars. A small group has gathered in a stable around a newborn baby, to hold him close, to gaze in wonder, to offer gifts. There’s probably no scene in the whole Gospels on which Christians have lingered with more tenderness than the scene of Jesus’ birth. We know the characters by heart: Mary, Joseph, and the child, the stable and the star, the ox and donkey, the shepherds and kings (the latter drafted from Matthew’s version of the story) – the whole lot of them surrounded by a company of angels.
Why has the scene so captured our imagination? Is it mere sentimentality that draws us back to something so familiar that it threatens to become commonplace, even banal? In a culture so saturated with images, you’d think that the image of Christ’s birth, reproduced every year on millions of greeting cards and Advent calendars, would become just one image among many, another commodity to be mindlessly bought, sold, and eventually discarded like any other piece of merchandise.
But some images resist being cheapened. Some images bear such power that, if we stop and let them speak to us, they can change our lives. We’re living in a time of uncertainty and fear, a time of violence and war, and now more than ever we long to ground ourselves in the Christ whose light is shining in the darkness.
“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15). If we linger here in thought and imagination – if we, too, gaze a while – perhaps we, too, will find a place to kneel. As poet Ann Weems puts it,
In each heart lies a Bethlehem,
an inn where we must ultimately answer
whether there is room or not. (1)
When you imagine the Nativity scene that night, what is the stable like? Is it large or small? Does it let in blasts of cold air from the starry night outside, or is it snug and warm? Can you smell the sharp tang of straw – feel the warm breath of the animals against your neck – see the candle or lantern-light cast dancing shadows against the wooden beams? Can you see the small cluster of men and women bending toward the child, and hear the murmur of their voices?
See: here come the shepherds, weary from too much work, busy with making a living, startled from the endless round of labor by a sudden rush of angels whose hands are full of stars. To these weary, lowly folk is given what Herbert O’Driscoll calls “the familiar and yet almost inexpressible good news”: tonight your heart’s deepest desire has been fulfilled. Tonight the One you seek has come into the world and is waiting for you. Come and see! Straggling into the stable, poor and dirty, the shepherds come. Roughly dressed, members of a despised trade, the shepherds don’t fit into polite society. They don’t belong. But it’s to these outcast, despised folk that the good news of God’s coming is given first.
Maybe it’s beside the shepherds that you who are over-worked or stressed or over-burdened may want to kneel. You’ve done enough. You can put your burden down. Come rest a while with the One who has loved you since before all time.
And maybe it’s with the shepherds that you’ll want to kneel if, like them, you suspect that you don’t belong, that you don’t deserve God’s kindness and have no right to be here. How many of us go through our lives secretly doubting our basic worth, convinced that we’ll never measure up! But it’s to you that God’s messengers come first, to announce that God has come into the world for you, and longs to draw you close. Come and see!
Or is it with the kings, the wise men, that you feel drawn to kneel? Here they are, the accomplished, successful ones, the educated and wealthy. They know their worth; they have the ear of emperors; they enjoy their privilege and power. And yet, moved by God’s grace, they don’t consider themselves too good to throw themselves down and kneel before this child. What a shock for them – but also what a relief! Pride has no place here, only the simplicity of love. Is it with the kings that you’d like to kneel?
Maybe it’s beside Mary that you would kneel, as she gazes on her child with a mother’s fierce tenderness and awe. Or beside Joseph, who may be covering Mary with his cloak and urging her to rest, or who may be taking up the baby in his arms
and [walking] him in the night,
patting him lovingly
until he [closes] his eyes.(2)
Is there a gift that you’d like to offer the child? Like the kings, you may be carrying something that you’d like to share or give away. Maybe you want to offer the joy you feel, the gladness and peace. Or maybe this morning there is some loss that fills you, a sorrow or concern. Many people enter a shadowed world this time of year, feeling grief or loneliness or regret. Whatever it is that fills you today, can you offer it to the little One who shines with God’s glory? Can you lay it at the feet of this baby and let yourself be warmed by the glow of his love?
And then there are the animals, snorting and stamping, stirring in the darkness. Tradition has it that a donkey and an ox attend the child’s birth, and perhaps other beasts are sheltered in the stable, as well. They, too, are welcome. They, too, are here to gaze, to be changed by the One whose presence touches not only human lives, but also the whole body of creation. With the coming of this child, everything that is now dwells in Christ, and Christ now dwells in all things. In Christ’s presence we know our kinship with animals, our connection to our fellow creatures that depend on the same air, land, and water that we do. Our God is not far off, impassive, invulnerable to the body, to its pain and pleasure. In Christ, God comes into the world through a woman’s body, in blood and mucus, in tears of pain and tears of joy. The God we know in Christ is intimately present to us in and through our bodies, in and through every breath we draw. Perhaps it is with the animals that you would kneel, as you sense how much God cherishes their bodies and yours, their energies and yours.
And angels, too, rejoice with the creatures of earth: the incarnation of Christ gathers into one, things earthly and heavenly. Christ embraces the lowly and the noble, the animal and the human, the intimate and the cosmic.
Why is it that we are so drawn to the image of the Nativity of Christ? Because here we see a parable of the soul, a picture of all aspects of the self, all aspects of the world, brought into harmony as they find their center in the purity and compassion of Christ. When everything in us is centered on that Child – when we offer Christ all that we are and all that we have – then everything in us finds it proper place, its right relation. The shepherd in us finds dignity and worth; the king in us finds humility; the mother and the father within us feel their strength; the animals beside us find a safe haven, and we hear the angels sing.
“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Today we gaze on the Child and sense the companionship of all those who gaze beside us. Do you notice the child’s vulnerability, his innocence, his love? Trust what you see. You are in the presence of God, and as you gaze on the Holy One – the One who loves you utterly – you are changed. You become who you really are. The Christ on whom you gaze is born within you. You become what you love.
May the humility of the shepherds, the perseverance of the wise men, the joy of the angels, and the peace of the Christ-child be God’s gifts to you this Christmas season, and always. Amen. (3)
(1) Ann Weems, “In Search of Our Kneeling Places,” Kneeling in Bethlehem, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980, p. 19.
(2) Ibid, “Getting to the Front of the Stable,” p. 50.
(3) Frank Colquhoun, ed. Prayers for Every Occasion, #60.