Do you remember ‘grumpy old uncle Stan’?
Eleven-year-old Nadia couldn’t believe that her recluse uncle fell asleep under the Christmas tree during the family gift exchange. He snored louder than any squeals of joy from other family opening presents.
Nadia complained to her Mom that she didn’t want to sit beside him at the Christmas dinner table any more. His burps and other inappropriate sounds coming from him embarrassed her to no end.
“I just don’t get it,” Nadia said. “Even though we make his favourite mash potatoes every year and wrap up all sorts of yarn for his knitting projects – he still acts all weird-like.”
“We only see him once a year, dear,” said her Mom. “We need to be patient.”
Nadia took a bite from left-over ginger bread. “Yeah. I don’t remember a Christmas without him.”
“You’re right,” Mom said. “He comes every year. He has a present for each of us. He listens to us more than he talks. I think he is just happy to be invited.”
“And sometimes he will ask me questions that make me really think.” Nadia continued eating her cookie. “I missed my cousins this year.”
“Yeah,” Mom sighed. “Other family members will sometimes find reasons for not coming. Uncle Stan comes anyway. Regardless of the weather. Regardless of who does or doesn’t have colds. Even when it would be better not to come. He comes anyway.”
“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Grumpy Uncle Stan.”
Christmas teaches us how God is present to us. I believe that everything that Jesus says, everything that Jesus does, and everything that happens to Jesus reveals to us how God is present in our life. And the way Jesus responds to the situations and people in his life reveals to us how we are to respond to God’s presence in our life.
It is in that spirit then, that I read and hear again this holy night the Gospel story of Jesus birth: When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem the time came for Mary to give birth. And probably because of all the people in Bethlehem because of the census, there was no room in the inn. And so, they had to go to a small stable where Jesus was born. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and put him in a manger. And he was born there out in the dark in the stable with the animals.
What does this story teach us about how God is present in our life? To me, it seems that a lesson is that there was no room in the inn, but God came anyway. The fact there was no room in the inn did not stop God from being born into this world, and that’s the lesson because that’s always true:
That sometimes in today’s world, whether it be through mass media or just the things that are going on internationally, and the way we as human beings treat each other, or sometimes just in our daily life, the hectic pace that we have to keep to just stay ahead of the day’s demands, along with the complexities of it all, it seems that there’s no room in the inn. That there is no hiatus from it all.
It’s true sometimes, not just in the world but in our own families, or sometimes just what we’re going through ourselves and all the ragged unfinished business of things. It seems that there’s no room in the inn. That it’s just all like closed up or too filled up with too much complexity and maybe things that shouldn’t even be there in the first place.
And as true as that might be we can take reassurance that God comes anyway. That God is being inexplicably born in our hearts moment by moment, breath by breath, as the interior richness of every little thing that happens to us and everyone around us.
As much as we may think it is all up to us – the good work we do, the important, business of our lives, striving after all that we believe is important – then come times and circumstances in our lives that confound and disrupt our self-inflated, self-constructed, neatly-tidied world –
A sudden death, a broken relationship, health problems, some failure, job loss, bad news, an unsolvable problem – and our neatly-packaged lives unravel.
And so, the Christmas message is really for those who seek more comfort than joy at this time of year. Some mercy. Some grace.
The Christmas message is for you who have tried oh-so hard to make things right but do not reap nor see the benefits of your toil; to you who by no fault of your own find yourselves in the middle of heart-ache; to you who continue to flounder in fields of despair when it seems there is no end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel; to you who carry on, lifting head high despite the significant impairments of your lives. The Christmas message is for you. So, hear this: God comes anyway.
Christmas is not an escape from those hard realities, an escape we must engineer somehow by all the numbing stimulations of holiday ‘cheer’. But that God comes right into the midst of the darkness of our lives.
But here’s the thing: In order to discover the presence of God, we have to leave the hurly-burly of the inn, the superficiality and the chatter of it all, and find our way in the dark, back to the stable. That is, we have to enter into the humility and the simplicity and the patience and the delicate nature of what’s unfolding in our heart to discover where God is being born in our life.
And in this kind of prayerful attentiveness we are then asked to bring that delicate simplicity back out into the hurly-burly of the world. “It would be so much easier if we were asked to live a simple life in a simple world. But we’re asked to live a simple life in a complicated world.” And I think this is how God is born in our hearts: In simplicity of heart we do our best to live with integrity in a complicated world.
James Finley relates one of his earliest memories of Christmas: His mother would take him to mass on Sunday and they always sat right up in the first couple of rows, off to the side altar. He was maybe three years old. He knew it was Christmas time because there were Christmas trees up in the sanctuary and there was a nativity scene.
He remembers the church was very crowded and a little baby started to cry near the back. And he remembers whispering in his mother’s ear: “Is that the baby Jesus crying?” His Mom leaned down and whispered in his ear, “Yes, it is.” And little James believed her. And today at 74 years old he still believes her. Not in the naïve way that a small child would believe it. But knowing that in Christ it is revealed to us that every child is worth all that God is worth.
And the truth is, for all the complexities and things of which that simplicity has been buried under, these so many things, there is in our heart this childlike purity, this childlike God-given Godly nature of who we simply are because God loves us.
And so, for us Christmas is us being awakened to this birthing of God in the simplicity of our hearts, in the depths of our life; and, into the awareness that despite the complexities of whatever each day might bring, we can take reassurance that God comes anyway.
 Katagiri Roshi, Contemporary Zen master.
 I’ve adapted his words to my preaching context and am ever grateful to James Finley, “An Advent Meditation” (New Mexico: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017), for sharing and emphasizing the Christmas Gospel message, that God comes anyway.