Christmas Eve Service
Princeton University Chapel
December 24, 2007
Here we are again – it is Christmas Eve. Here we are again, brought to the side of the manger, whether we are ready to be here or whether we are not. Whether we have gotten everything done for work or Christmas, or whether we have not. Whether our spirits are ready to engage in the Christmas story, or whether they are not. Here we are again on Christmas Eve, no matter where the last 12 months have taken us, perhaps a great sadness, hopefully not a tragedy; perhaps a great joy, perhaps long days of hard work worth doing. No matter where the last year has taken us we are summoned back to the stable, back to the miracle, back to the new beginning for us and for our tired world.
It’s a story we know by heart – ox and ass, manger, angels, shepherds, star, no room, Mary, Joseph, the Baby (last but not least!). It’s a story whose familiarity may mean we don’t really know it, or not in its fullness. We’ve sanitized it mightily. The town of Bethlehem was packed with people who had to visit in order to be registered. The Roman Emperor Augustus had said that all Jews had to register themselves as such in the towns from which their families hailed. Think of any brutal government and its attempts to administratively pin down to localities a local population so as better to control them. It happened to Jews in the Third Reich, to Mayans in Guatemala, and in South African Bantustans. Joseph and Mary have to get on the Roman books in Bethlehem, even is she’s about to give birth – what does that matter to them? – and when she does go into labor, no one will let her indoors. Some scholars think she was 14 years old. Could the townspeople tell that she wasn’t yet married? Did she not deserve their respect?
She and her fiancé find a barn; the owners may not have known and the animal occupants couldn’t protest. Today the barn is thought to have been a cave rather than a wooden structure; that’s where people kept their animals. And in conditions so unsanitary we wouldn’t imagine our worst enemy in them, these teenagers delivered their own baby. In our manger scenes Mary is kneeling on the floor, quite put-together and ready to receive company. The sheep and goats admire the baby who looks to be about 6 months old. But our Savior was born in a dank and smelly place; he was disregarded by the “decent” folks in town, left to be born in the cold, in the midst of dirt and hay and manure. Our sanitized versions are much more appealing!
And yet the meaning we draw from it all is not sanitized; it is gospel truth: in the lowest circumstances of the day – socially, financially, politically – God chooses to be born among us. This is no “accident of birth”. Our King is not born in a palace but in a goat cave, and God would have it no other way. God chooses to enter our world in human form at the very bottom of all that we are as societies – then and now. The Roman occupation of the Holy Land was vicious. As he grew, Jesus would tell stories about situations he knew, perhaps from direct experience, like being forced, simply because he was a Jew, to stop what he was doing and carry a Roman soldier’s heavy pack for a mile, and of being fleeced of his meager income to pay taxes that supported the occupation of his homeland. It was constant humiliation. Into not just humble but humiliating circumstances, God chooses to be born.
We read in Luke’s gospel that an angel of the Lord tells some terrified shepherds “good news of great joy for all the people.” All the people, starting with those very non-elite shepherds whom God chooses to receive the word first. God chooses not to enter our world in human form starting at the top. The Emperor Augustus, who wants to classify his subjects so as to keep stricter control over them, was not the portal by which God became flesh and dwelt among us. That might have been easier. Baby Augustus grows to be emperor (or fights his way into the job?) and then makes laws that reflect the holy kingdom of our God? No. The transformation of “earth as it is in heaven” isn’t made by God’s joining any human political system (and how many monarchs, presidents, and emperors have declared themselves to be leading with God’s best interests at heart?). The redemption of all the people is not from the top down but from the very bottom up. Only in this way can we all be transformed. I’ve never liked the phrase, “A rising tide lifts all boats” because the dinghy is still a dinghy and the yacht is still a yacht. We mustn’t kid ourselves that playing fields are all magically leveled – inequalities, in fact, persist. But I do love the image of a tide, a rush of water, coming up through springs in caves from the depths of the earth and watering all the land, sustaining and giving life to every last person. At Christmas we remember that God has chosen to enter our reality at its depths and from there to lift all people to salvation, scooping us up from below in Christ’s loving arms. This is true Lordship, not the one enjoyed by the Emperor Augustus and his underling Quirinius, based on wealth and power, but a Lordship based on humility, reverence, mercy, justice, and love. Herod’s lordship identifies with the strong, with the three kings who will visit him for directions as they follow a star. He will wink at his royal guests, fellow rulers, and unctuously tell them to come back and tell him everything once they’ve found this new little ruler, his rival. No king wants a rival, after all. Herod’s lordship is about wealth and empire. Christ’s lordship is about the very opposite. It is not about power and privilege for a few, but abundant life for every last person on earth. “For God so loved the world,” we read in the Gospel According to John (and on placards in the end zone). For God so loved the world – not just a few people here and there, not people with particular opinions or beliefs – God so loved the world that Jesus was sent, born among us to set all people free.
And yet all people are not free, not by a long shot. They are imprisoned by despair, when the harder parts of human living get to be too much, when sorrows and disappointments and regrets pile one upon another. They are imprisoned by oppressions and injustice, the vital flame of their spirits belittled or humiliated and said to be not as valuable as others’. They are imprisoned by their own all-consuming efforts just to eat enough or to avoid physical danger. They are imprisoned by addictions to substances and people and power and cheap dreams. They – we – are not free.
Jesus is born again among us this night to set all people free. He is born among us, but will he born within us? It is only there that he can set us free, only when we give him room in our hearts to come, when we move aside all that is not worthy of our love and our ambition and create for him the real place that the Bethlehemites did not have. There is much in our hearts already that is worthy of our love – the people, the communities, the callings, what gifts from God. Each year at Christmas, poor Mary and Joseph knock on every heart to see if there is still room for their baby to be born there - here. Shall we make room? Shall we risk changing? Shall we risk being set free? Our lives may change for it. When we are honest with ourselves, we admit that this is what we yearn for – the Christmas that is not found under the tree, but unwrapped in the human heart. “I never really got into the Christmas spirit this year,” we may say. “I never felt the glow. I never got the emotional uplift.” We will be disappointed this and every Christmas season if we understand the hope and potential of these days to mean we are lifted above all disappointments and cares. On the contrary. The truth of these days is that God descends into where we are, not above it, hoping to find room to dwell within us, wherever we are, and from there to set us free. God descends to us wherever we are, as low as a cave, into whatever poverty we dwell – of purse or of spirit. God comes down, that we may then be raised up.
The story is told of the Christmas pageant held at the Riverside Church in New York, where I was, long ago, a member and later ordained. One year, before my time there, the role of the inn-keeper in the Christmas Eve pageant was played by a boy with Down Syndrome. His parents and the pageant director rehearsed endlessly with the little guy his one big line: “There is no room at the inn.” When the big performance came, the kids portraying Mary and Joseph approached the actor and asked for a place to stay. His parents and others held their breath, then with aplomb, our thespian proclaimed, “There is no room at the inn.” Those in the know breathed a sigh of relief, then Mary and Joseph turned to continue their pantomimed search for a place to stay. Just then our little actor yelled out, “But you can stay at our house!” Next, when the sermon came, all that the senior minister, William Sloan Coffin, could say was “Amen.”
Can Jesus stay at your house? Can he stay with you? With me? It’s a request with enormous ramifications. But it is the message of Christmas. Can he be born in us? Only then could Christmas become “good news of great joy to all people,” all the people we serve, all the people we lift up, all the people to whom we say, “Arise, shine – you shine! Your light has come.” All people in caves of oppression, violence, injustice, despair. To each and to us, God descends this night, no matter where the last year has taken us, no matter to what heights or depths, no matter how ready or unready we are for him, the Greatest Gift. He comes again, so vulnerable, in the middle of the darkest night he descends, to set all people – free!
Christmas, The Living Pulpit, Vol. 6, No. 4, October – December, 1997.
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