December 24, 2017 The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Christmas Eve

 

Isaiah 9:2–7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11–14, Luke 2:1–20

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of the One who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

I couldn’t have been much more than nine or ten years old. Our family was invited to spend Christmas Eve day with the family of my dad’s best friend. Now, this was not an unusual thing; our families got together regularly through the year. My dad and his friend Bill would drink beer, listen to various polka bands in which they were interested, recorded on reel-to-reel tapes, and comment on the nuances that made one band rise from good to great over another. Or, they would get together to drink beer and watch the Packers play football, providing armchair commentary throughout each game. These were not unusual gatherings and they usually ended in the adults getting somewhat inebriated from the beer; and during the year, I never gave a single thought or worried a single ounce about this. But, this was Christmas Eve, and to my young mind, not only was the gathering a hindrance to our usual Christmas Eve observance, but the beer especially seemed a foreign force that threatened the peace and tranquility of the Day. You see, I had constructed in my mind an idea of Christmas Eve that I now have come to realize is largely false. Christmas was about family and peace (and particularly family peace); it was about stars and babies and angels and shepherds and sheep; it was about family traditions: 4:00 church, open presents at home; drive to my paternal grandparents’ farm (with the big evergreen in the front yard lit in holiday lights so that it could be seen for miles), open presents; go to my maternal grandparents’ farm on Christmas Day and have a holiday feast with aunts and uncles and cousins and open more presents. That night, I prayed hard in church that my dad would sober-up so that we could recover these traditions and somehow capture the magic that the holy season held out to us. That night I prayed, as I always prayed, for a peace in my heart that never really came, or if it did, was always short-lived. As an adult, I have come to understand that such a prayer is unrealistic and not true to the power of the Christmas story itself.

This morning I suggested that the Christmas story, far from being a nice story that warms the heart with visions of stars and babies and angels and shepherds and sheep, is a very subversive story about “the radical inversion of power. Christ doesn’t enter the world as hero; he was born among those the Roman Empire oppressed and despised. The incarnation”—that is, the belief that God took on human flesh and blood in Jesus—”is God’s promise that the ‘last shall be first,’ made real in flesh.” (https://sojo.net/articles/donald-trump-wont-celebrate-christmas-heres-why)

Consider, for a moment, that Mary and Joseph live on the margins of the empire. They and their people have been colonized by a foreign power, Rome, and know the brutality of oppression, particularly to those considered foreign and poor, as they were. Everything about them—their dress, their language, their religion, Mary’s gender—was suspect. Beyond foreign oppression, Mary is burdened by her own religion, being subject to Hebrew patriarchal laws that dictate the rules and rites of matrimony. “To violate the norms and conventions of her people or of Roman law is to seek expulsion or worse, the death penalty.” (Jay Alanis, “December 24, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Advent: From a Preacher” in Sundays and Seasons Preaching: Year B 2018, p. 31.) This is the context into which Jesus was born: his family was “a poor family forced to give birth to our savior among livestock—a family who later became refugees, for fear of violence.” (https://sojo.net/articles/donald-trump-wont-celebrate-christmas-heres-why)

Yet, our culture seems determined to sugarcoat these realities, as I did as a child. Many seek to define Christmas in their longings for family togetherness—longings that, like my own childhood longings, were fleeting; others are obsessed with the central place of the holiday in our cultural imagination, worrying that secularism is emptying the holiday of its power, declaring with renewed vigor in the wake of shifting cultural winds, “Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before”; still others love the sheer size of the holiday—the glitzy trimmings, the abundant (and often expensive) gifts, the tree, the cookies, the feast. But, these longings say more about us than about the holiday itself, revealing our desperate need for the poor refugee child who is our Savior and Lord. Our longing for family togetherness betrays the reality that our relationships with those closest to us often are strained or broken and we hope beyond hope, if only for a few precious hours, to find some peace and joy where there is none in the hope that, miraculously, it may last beyond the holiday. Our attempts to stem the tide of secularism and reassert Christian faith in our cultural imagination only reveals the waning of Christendom—almost two millennia in which Christian faith was the only game in town—and a sneaking suspicion deep down inside, if truth be told, that such dominance is not becoming the One who insisted that the first would be last and the last would be first anyway, but with no idea of what a different paradigm would be. Our addiction to the grandeur of the holiday may reveal broken lives hidden behind the busyness of the season or the accumulation of stuff to stem the emptiness we feel.                Ironically, when we allow the Christmas story to be what it is rather than imposing our expectations and longings on it, we find in it the path for the healing of the world, to be sure, but also for our own healing. But to do that, we must embrace the reality of the lives of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and that of their contemporary equivalents. We must understand, for instance, that the Holy Family had to flee for their lives from King Herod, the puppet of Rome, in power to give the illusion of autonomous rule (Herod was, by heritage at least, Jewish). After the visit of the Wise Ones searching for “the king of the Jews,” as they called him (Matthew 2:2), “Herod does what any petty despot would—he tries to get rid of the threat to his throne. He lashes out in fury and anger. He ‘counterpunches,’” because Jesus “threatens the unjust power structure upon which Herod sits.” (https://sojo.net/articles/donald-trump-wont-celebrate-christmas-heres-why)

And so, the family fled to Egypt—became poor refugees in a foreign land. We who claim to follow a refugee Savior, therefore, cannot disregard refugee or immigrant lives. Moreover, we cannot be “dedicated to ‘winning’” and “understand why God would choose to enter the world as a ‘loser’; we cannot conflate “wealth with moral authority” and expect “to grasp why God is born into an impoverished body’ or begin to “grasp the meaning of the manger.” Rather, we are called to speak out on behalf of the refugee and the immigrant; we are called to be on the side of the losers; we are called to side with the poor. In so doing, we ourselves become God-in-the-flesh to and for others in the world—we become Jesus to those in desperate need of his healing presence and touch.

This, precisely, is the place where there is hope for the healing of our own brokenness and longing. The birth of our Savior and Lord to a poor refugee family amid livestock in a barn is a living metaphor for the vision God has for the world. It is not a vision marked by wealth, power, and prestige; these are the marks of oppressive empires, despotic rulers, and misguided religious leaders. Rather, we are guided by the claim of the refugee child born in Bethlehem that those who do his will and the will of his Father in heaven are not refugees but are members of his family thus and have a home. As such, we can be freed from desperately trying to create family togetherness where there may be none, knowing that when our earthly family fails us (and they do quite often, if we are truly honest with ourselves), we are a part of God’s family that transcends time and space, a family rooted in the unconditional steadfast love of God; and we are comforted that Jesus goes to prepare a home for us with this family. We are led by the humble child born to a humble carpenter from a backwoods town who tells us that the last will be first and the first will be last. This frees us from always having to be first, right, most important, most prestigious; this frees us to honor others with holiday traditions that may not be like our own; and when we stop trying to impose our will on others, we are freed to celebrate and explore our own tradition and live it out, lustily and joyfully. We follow the poor child born amid the livestock who told the story of the widow who gave her last coins to God trusting that God would lovingly provide for her. And so, we are freed from the busyness, the glitz, and the unending commercialism of the season to celebrate the birth of the One whose very presence turns our world upside down and to rethink our place and priorities in that celebration.

Understood correctly, these stories can free us from our hopeless longings and unrealistic expectations and empower us to birth the Christ Child anew for a hurting and hopeless world. And so we pray: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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