Brief synopsis of the readings: Each year Christmas gives us several readings. For no particular reason outside of my personal preference, I’ve chosen the readings from Midnight Mass. When I was growing up the mass was indeed at midnight it was a staple of my growing up. Starting a few decades ago, Midnight Mass began celebrating earlier, normally at 10PM. Now these readings are called “Mass During the Night.” Well, at least the readings are the same. In our first reading from Isaiah we read of a people who previously walked in darkness but now walk in the light. Furthermore “there is a child for us, a son given to us.” This child will restore the “throne of David.” Our Gospel recounts the birth narrative from Luke. Joseph and his fiance Mary (who is pregnant) travel to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. Unable to find a room they took up residence in a barn where their child was born. An angel appeared to local shepherds to announce the birth of the Savior.
At, at long last it’s come: Christmas. It’s a ritual we do every year and I think for many of us it brings a sense of relief. We’ve done the shopping, sent the cards, spent way too much time in parking lots at shopping centers. Now the presents have been opened, the feast is done and we can relax.
Except this year is different. Decades from now we’ll remember this as the Christmas where we had to change plans and isolate because of a virus. This year many of us will be apart from our normal places and traditions, and tragically some are mourning our loved ones who have fallen victims to the virus. But as those who follow this child born in a barn we know that this is not the only difficult time. Christmas was celebrated during the Bubonic Plague in the middle of the 14th Century, the influenza pandemic of 1918, and now. As a people of hope we pray that Christmas 2021 will put today in that context.
And I find the context of Christmas fascinating. In my career I’ve been blessed to learn about other religions, their origins, their values, and their traditions. All religions celebrate some sort of creation story and many worship a Supreme Being. For many faiths this Supreme Being, or Creator, began the story and continues to work in the lives of the created.
But Christianity gives us something unique: a Creator who becomes human and dwelt among us.
But why did God do this? This may not be everyone’s experience, but when I was a child there was an undertone of “things had gotten so bad that God needed to come to save us.” In other words we had been created to be perfect images of God but kept messing it up. First there was Adam and Eve (and the forbidden fruit), then there was Noah’s Ark, and finally those under Roman rule. God had finally had enough and sent Jesus to get us in line. I’ve even seen a bumper sticker that portrays a stern God scolding us by saying “Don’t make me come down there!”
I pray none of us today believe that and I’m fairly certain none of our children are being told this. Instead, I like to think that God saw us and was not content with simply watching us. God loved us so much that he wanted to walk among us. He loved us so much that he couldn’t be apart.
There aren’t many analogies that we can use, but I like to think about authors and their characters. Last week we learned about the death of the author John le Carre who wrote spy novels featuring the character George Smiley. Clearly Mr. le Carre created George Smiley. We don’t know Mr. le Carre’s view of George Smiley, but I think we can assume he was proud of his creation. Successful authors will sometimes talk about writing their characters and wondering “where they will go.” It’s almost as if the author isn’t making up the story so much as uncovering the story.
What if God did that? What if God created us, wanting nothing but the best for us, and found in us a love that God didn’t expect?
Perhaps this is far fetched, but I have spoken with countless parents who have told me that they never knew the depths of their possibility for love until they had a child. Only then did they understand that they could love another person so much that they would be willing to die for them.
God loved us enough to die for us.
But that’s a story for Easter. Today we celebrate the beginning of his earthly life, not the end. This asks an interesting question: If you are God and you wish to write yourself into our story, where do you begin?
Do you begin as a king? That’s pretty tempting because you will not only avoid food insecurity or prejudice, you will already have a voice. But here’s the problem: if you’re wealthy and powerful your voice will only resonate with others with wealth and power. The poor will assume your message doesn’t include them.
But God knew better. By being born poor and homeless, Jesus gained the credibility of a large majority of of poor people who, let’s face it, were in the majority. They listened to him because he was born as one of them. Jesus came to us not with a silver spoon in his mouth but surrounded by his parents and several farm animals.
And I believe that’s why we worship him today. He wasn’t born into wealth with the message that we should listen to the powerful. Instead he was born into poverty with the message that his message includes all of us.
As we celebrate Christmas 2020, in the midst of a viral crisis, let us remember that our Savior came to us far away from the the power and wealth we are told we are supposed to worship. He came for us, all of us, and that matters.