A sentimental Christmas?

We say that ‘Christmas is for the children’. Especially, parents and grandparents will focus much of their energies to make sure the children are happy: 

That the presents they receive will excite them, 

That the rituals around the Christmas tree and fireplace will fuel their anticipation and wonder, 

That the events in church and community the family attends will reinforce their understanding of the meaning of it all. 

And that all these efforts will bring delight to those who watch and attend them. And make it all worth the effort.

The accounts of Jesus’ birth – the Christ child born in Bethlehem – in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke especially reinforce our emphasis on children: The story of the Word made flesh in Jesus begins with Jesus the babe. The story of Jesus that ends at the cross of Golgotha and the empty tomb begins in a baby’s cries from a feeding trough in a stable for animals. 

Yes, Christmas is by the children and for the children. It is no wonder many of the annual Christmas pageants today are performed by children.

And yet, the story of faith compiled over decades and centuries into what we have in the bible challenges us. What the early Christians give us disrupts our sentimental bias in how we celebrate the Christmas season.

Let’s go back in time a week ago. First, December 21, the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, was traditionally the feast day observed for Saint Thomas, the doubting one, who was martyred in India in the mid first century. Then, December 26 is the feast day for Saint Stephen, whose violent murder at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious we read about in the book of Acts.[1]

And, finally, today, the first Sunday of Christmas, the church commemorates the ‘Holy Innocents’ – the children of Bethlehem – who were murdered at the hands of Herod trying to get at Jesus and eliminate any potential threat to his despotic hold on power.[2]

Not exactly a Christmas observance that brings the warm fuzzies. Why has the tradition included these rather violent and distressing facts about Christian faith so close to Christmas? Wouldn’t we rather put off such disturbing elements until long after the holidays when the kids are back to school and we return to the mundane realities of our lives (when we can ignore the truth of the faith)? Wouldn’t we rather preserve the genteel, Hallmark images cradled in soft-white light where all the children are squealing with delight?

The church, in its wisdom, pierces through our illusions and disrupts our escapism. In compiling the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew, the Gospel writer, chose to express a profound care for the children – especially those who suffered under the violent injustices of corrupt and despotic rulers. Matthew will not ignore what happened around Jesus’ birth, but will bring voice to it. Expose it for what it is.

This Christmas story is a very human, and a very real, story of life and death, sin and grace. None of it can be ignored nor dismissed, and certainly not simply in order to cradle our cocktail-numbed minds. The Gospel pours cold water on us and calls us to ‘wake up’ in the face of our reality:

That following Christ will sometimes be a rocky road, to put it mildly – as the ancient martyrs of the faith exemplified by their faithfulness and service. That following Christ will sometimes shock us onto our knees in lamenting the evil in the world – when children elsewhere and in our own communities suffer incredible injustice and violence.

That following Christ will sometimes call us into risky and urgent action that doesn’t give time for proper goodbyes. That following Christ will sometimes call for unconditional grace and acceptance of the stranger – as Egypt welcomed the fleeing holy family refugees from neighboring Judea. 

We don’t care for the children if we turn a blind eye to injustice, especially at Christmas. We don’t care for the children when we insist on avoiding the chaos and upheaval that our faith implies. Christmas isn’t just about sentimentality. It is more about taking responsibility and learning from the witness of the Gospel message.

One element of the storytelling from the Gospel today catches my eye: It is the rapid plot movement. This story reflects anything but a sedate, static tableau:

One moment, the holy family is in Bethlehem being visited upon by the magi; the next moment they are fleeing to Egypt. Then, Herod reacts, is infuriated by the magi’s deception, and sends his murdering squads to Bethlehem. Even though it would have been some time passing until Herod’s death, the story-telling doesn’t permit but a breath before another angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream to ‘get up’ and return his family to the land of Israel. But not to Bethlehem where potential threat still exists, but to Nazareth. And all of this in ten short verses.

The pace of the story-telling itself evokes responsibility, not sentiment – not even a lingering, inert contemplation. Joseph doesn’t even have time to think, just react. And trust himself and especially trust God. The truth of the story is expressed in behavior and action.

The witness of the story-tellers of old have something to say to us, who very much like to sit-back and put-up-our-feet during the Christmas season. Perhaps this word to us is a reminder not to forget to take up the mantle of faith, to do our part in meaningful action and behavior. And be responsible, as the body of Christ, to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

“For if the babe does not again take flesh in us today, the Bethlehem star is but an optical illusion leading to nothing. 

“If we are not empowered to offer a gift to the one in need, then there are no wise men searching. 

“If there is no praise or joy within our hearts, then there are no angels singing; no shepherds watching.”[3]

May these days of Christmas bring to us a deepened awareness of the care we have and express for this dark, broken world. And in so doing fulfill our responsibility as bearers of the Christ child.

This responsibility is also a gift God gives us at Christmas. It is a gift that is activated in us by the witness of all the saints of old.


[1]Acts 6:8—7:60

[2]Matthew 2:16-18

[3]Bishop Michael Pryse, Christmas Message from Bishop Pryse (www.easternsynod.org, December 24, 2019)

Meeting the unexpected

On New Year’s Eve, the roadway was completely covered in snow. All I could see in the waning light of day was the general shape of the roadbed curving slightly to the right in front of me.

I couldn’t see the customary yellow and white lines on the pavement to guide me. There were no tracks left in the snow of cars gone down this way recently. The snowfall was fresh and the road was not well-travelled.

I could control my speed, of course, but I didn’t have a lot to go on. Would I get home in one piece? First, I had to slow down. And even be prepared to stop.

The Magi were on a journey to arrive at the home of the young Christ child. Christmas cards and the popular mindset show the Magi at the baby Jesus’ side on the night he was born. But that is likely not the case.

The Gospel of Matthew indicates the Magi visited the holy family’s “house” in Bethlehem, hardly a description of a cave or stable for animals.[1]The Gospel of Luke, from which we read the birth narrative on Christmas Eve, does not mention the Magi.

The Magi were on a journey that took months if not years to accomplish. Their journey took time. Their coming to Jesus, so to speak, was not an immediate, instant, snap-of-the-fingers conversion. Their experience was slow, plodding and winding course across the deserts of the Middle East. On their journey to find Jesus, they had to have the long-view in mind. A whole lot of determination. And a commitment to the journey with all its fits and starts.

I also get the impression, reading through these verses from Matthew, that the Magi who were nearing the end of their long journey had to make in-the-moment changes to their plans. They had to check their assumptions and change their minds about initial expectations.

For example, at least half the Gospel text for today focuses on Herod. Initially, the Magi came to him in good faith, believing the Roman governor would sincerely help them. But an angel of the Lord had to steer them away, literally by a different road, and from Herod’s manipulating, plotting, fear-ridden treachery. The Magi had to trust ‘new information’ and make changes to their flight plan in mid-stream.

Then, the gifts. Three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. In biblical times, these gifts were usually given to a king or a person with highest status. Gold was such a gift. From the Hebrew scriptures, when The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon she gave him precious gifts: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan – with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones” (1 Kings 10:2). The spices that she brought with her might very well have been frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts themselves are a powerful sign of what these visitors originally intended. The Magi were coming a long way to worship who they considered the true King. Not Herod. Not Rome. But the divine Son of God.

And, still, not what they expected.

The meaning of these gifts needs to be examined in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For us, what is ‘kingship’ in light of Christ—certainly not what we might first assume: glory, power, military strength and victory. Jesus’ journey took him through the defeat and humiliation of the cross. That’s the kind of kingship Jesus is about.

Myrrh represented healing. Healing in the light of Christ was not so much about an instant cure to earthly disease. But rather, healing is a transformation of the inner life of our attitudes and finding wholeness and grace in every moment of life, especially in the midst of suffering and pain. The king whom the Magi came to worship was a king who, in truth, represented values and meaning that countered—were at odds with—the values of the world.

And that is why this story starts the season of Epiphany in the church. Epiphany means, Revelation. The baby Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who shows us the way of God—God’s path of transformation and salvation. The season of Epiphany invites us to participatein this way. Participating in this journey asks us, like the first Magi, to be prepared to change course and examine our standing assumptions about God and the world.

It’s the manner in which the truth is revealed that ought to catch our attention in the biblical story. And this way is both apparent by what these three gifts mean, and by the expectations we first bring to this story.

For example: We assume and even say ‘it’s biblical’ that there were three men and they were three kings. But that’s not what the bible says. For all we know, there could have been a whole caravan of them. And what if some were women?

Although we sing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,”, these visitors from the East were also not kings. The term Magi is a plural form of a word in Greek which means, literally, Zoroastrian priests.[2]And, maybe they earned the title ‘wise’ because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology.

It’s as if the proverbial rug first needs to be pulled from underneath us before the truth is revealed. We don’t come to it straight on. Our expectations first need to be checked, and likely over time, over turned.

Once on New Year’s Eve when driving down a country road covered in snow in the middle of a blinding snow storm I thought I was driving in the middle of the road. I figured I best check that assumption. Thank God I did.

In a moment no other vehicle was passing, I stopped and opened the driver’s side door. With my boot, I scraped away the fluffy blanket of snow believing I would find the dark asphalt of the road and maybe even a lane marker painted on the hard top.

To my horror, I turned over stones and gravel, indicating I was already on the shoulder of the road. Had I not stopped at that moment, my vehicle was heading in the direction of the deep ditch on the side of the road.

Thank God, I had it in my mind to stop when I did, and scratch the surface of my belief. Then, I was able to change course.

The star finally stopped over Bethlehem, showing the Wise Ones where the destination of their journey lay. At this sign, “they were overwhelmed with joy.”[3]Arriving home in one piece from driving in less-than-ideal road conditions gave me a sense of joy. The joy comes because of the journey, maybe because the journey was difficult. Maybe because the journey called forth the best from you, to meet the challenges and make headway despite the journey’s challenges, pain and suffering.

The amazing thing is that God somehow brought the Magi–the Wise Ones–to the exact location of their hopes and dreams. Perhaps not what they expected at first. But this gift they surely recognized.

Here are some questions for reflection as we enter this new season after the Epiphany: What was the most important gift you received this holiday season? Did you expect it? Why is it important? How did you receive it?

God has given us the greatest gift in Jesus. Where we find him will be shown to us, on the journey. This grace continues throughout our lives.

May our trust grow in a God who has this uncanny ability to trust and have faith in us to get home. Let us pray: God, you led the Wise Ones by a star to find the Christ child. Lead us as we strive to follow you in living our faith. No matter how long it takes. No matter how winding the journey. Help us trust your promise to bring us home. Amen.

 

[1]Matthew 2:11

[2]Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12”, http://www.workingpreacher.org

[3]Matthew 2:10

Christmas – God goes home

Were you home for Christmas?

It is customary to be at home, or go home, for Christmas. For some, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without being home. And, in this meaning, ‘home’ refers to a specific, geographic location, a space usually defined by a building: the homestead back on the farm, the house you grew up in and is still in the family, the house you lived in for many years, etc.

Bing Crosby’s “I’ll be home for Christmas” echoes in the back of our mind, providing a mantra for constructing our idea of what Christmas must be like. Being home brings comfort and a feeling of stability. To do or say otherwise might threaten our very notion of what Christmas means. In discussing whether it is time to celebrate Christmas somewhere new and somewhere different, someone will always say: How could we do Christmas anywhere else than here — at home?

I heard over the holiday the story of a childhood memory of Christmas. When this person was a young child, her parents took her and her siblings to travel from Ottawa to the Eastern Townships to be with an aging and infirm family member. Friends criticized them: “How could you spend Christmas in a motel room and nursing home far away,” they judged. “You’re spoiling Christmas. Especially for the children.”

Contrary to our nostalgic sentiments, the first Christmas story points another way: Mary and Joseph make a home where there is no home – a stable behind a packed inn in a town far away from hometown Nazareth. The recluse shepherds have to leave the familiar abodes of the fields surrounding Bethlehem and go with haste to visit strangers in town. And the magi travel great distances, following a star, from the East and arrive to visit the Christ child after some time has passed since that Holy Night.

The Christmas story is more about traveling away from home, away from the familiar and towards the unknown, the new, the unfamiliar. If we assume that being away from home at Christmas would be unsettling, then we might be surprised that the dislocation of the main characters in the Christmas story does not appear to destabilize them.[1]

Brian McLaren argues that what matters most in religion “is not our status but our trajectory, not where we are but where we’re going, not where we stand but where we’re headed. Religion is at its best when it leads us forward, when it guides us on our spiritual growth.”[2] This is the meaning of the magi’s journey:

Religion is at its best when we, with the wise men, follow the star shining upon the place of Jesus’ presence in the world today. Like Jesus’ disciples who were to “go into all the world”[3], we are called from time to time to leave places of comfort and familiarity, in order to discover the new things God is revealing to us and participate in the mission of God.

Our comfort and stability come when, no matter where we find ourselves at Christmas time, we find our home in Christ. There is something true about a nostalgic portrayal of the nativity: the happy family and visitors huddle around the manger made of straw, a soft light shedding its warmth on the pastoral scene; what is right about this is that there is a home – a home whose hearth is Jesus Christ himself.[4]

As I pondered the idea of being home at Christmas, I found this wonderful definition of home: “Home is the abiding place of the affections.”[5] Home speaks of a shared intimacy, vulnerability, truth-telling and love. The abiding place of the affections is not limited to any one physical space, but is more a function of healthy relationships. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”[6] Whenever deep speaks to deep,[7] heart speaks to heart, that is home. And that is where God is.

In this coming season of Epiphany, we indeed discover God anew. We discover the revelation of Jesus in the world today. We discover with joy that God is at home in us and in this world.

“See, the home of God is among mortals; He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them.”[8]

Christmas means that the game for us has changed. For, no longer do we need to wait until the end of our life to go to heaven and be with God. For that matter, we don’t need to go anywhere at all.

Rather, Christmas means that God came home; that God and heaven have come to us. To where we are. And no matter where we are. For now, and forevermore. Amen.

 

[1] Cynthia L. Rigby in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Volume 1 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008) p.118.

[2] Brian McLaren, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian” (Convergent, 2006), p.xi-xii, 12-13.

[3] Mark 16:15

[4] Cynthia L. Rigby, ibid.

[5] David Marine, cited in Diana Butler Bass, “Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015) p.172.

[6] Matthew 18:20

[7] Psalm 42:7

[8] Revelation 21:3

An Epiphany reflection

Two kings stand amid the sand dunes under the star speckled desert sky dressed in their regal attire. Their camels peer over their shoulders at the third ‘wise man’ holding the hand of Frankenstein. Yes, Frankenstein. 

The two confront the third, pointing accusatory fingers at what they do not understand: “Right, we’ve picked up the gold and the myrrh … What on earth is THAT?!”

We know the story (Matthew 2) of the magi who visited the infant Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yes, frankincense. 

We might have an idea of what gold is. But frankincense and myrrh? Basically, these are fragrant spices. But they are not the kind of gifts we would normally give anyone today, let alone a king or queen, president or prime minister. Because we are not familiar with these kinds of gifts, we get tripped up over the words and confuse them with other things. Today we know more about Frankenstein than we do about frankincense. Yet, in Jesus’ day, these were very special gifts.

Let me show you a gift I received this Christmas season. It is three bars of hand-made soap. One of the bars of soap actually has gold flecks in it, as well as frankincense and myrrh essential oils. It is called the “Gift of the Magi Soap”. I suppose there are other things about this gift that can remind me of God, the Christmas story, and the reason Jesus came to the world. 

For example, three bars of soap stand for the Trinity: God is the Father who created everything and everyone; Jesus is the Son who came to wash us clean from our sin; and the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to be the people God has called us to be — to love and care for all people. Of course, the three bars also remind me of the three wise men bearing their special gifts for the baby Jesus.

These days, we will not bring frankincense or myrrh to give to Jesus. Some may bring gold. But the point is not what kind of gift it is. It is that we are willing to bring something special from our own lives to give back to God. It is our offering, whatever it is — our love, our passions, our money, our time, our talents. Maybe even myrrh and frankincense, who knows? 

In this new year, let’s spend some time first thinking about what we can give to God. And then do it. We don’t need to be kings, queens, presidents or prime ministers to give anything of value to Jesus. Because in our baptism we are all princes and princesses in God’s kingdom. And, because our various gifts are important to Jesus and his mission on earth today.

New Year’s Goals

It seems to me that so much “success” in our lives is based on setting goals. We set goals in our business ventures; we set goals for our personal self-care — exercise, diet and relationships; we set goals for acquiring the toys and things we want in life. Setting goals motivates us to act!

A person who does not have any goals, we believe, is a person without backbone, floating untethered through life, unprincipled, and usually lazy and poor. A person without any goals, we believe, is rudderless and not making the most of what life can offer. A person without any goals, we believe, are the very people who end up in therapy, counselling, or on the street. They just need to get their life back on track by setting some goals, we believe.

There are some traditions of this time of year that stand out for me. Making New Year’s resolutions is one of them. And I like to ponder what this means, because I need to get back on track with so many things — year after year! And since I do a lot of driving, I like what blogger Jeff Boss has to say about New Year’s resolutions:

“New Year’s resolutions are like traffic. As the driver, your focus is intent while trying to ‘get there;’ you see others pass you by; you get held up at a red light that slows down progress. Distractions such as the radio, crazy drivers, cellphones, preclude you from focusing on the one thing you should: the road ahead. In other words, New Year’s resolutions come and go, ebb and flow, only to be revisited the following year …

“It has been said that the only certainty in life is uncertainty; change is the one ‘thing’ we can all count on to always be there—and that guy Murphy always seems to be leading the charge.” (Jeff Boss, contributor, “4 Simple Goal-Setting Ideas for 2015”, Forbes http://buff.ly/1A6rx47)

As important as goal-setting is, we also have somehow to account for the unexpected, on-the-ground realities that come our way on the journey towards that goal.

What will we do when we encounter those who ‘pass us by’ on the road? What will we do when we have to ‘stop at a red light’? And, what will we do when we are distracted from our goals?

First, what do you do when you see others pass you by on the road of life and faith? Our culture is based on the value of competition — whether we’re talking about sibling rivalry, sports or our economy. Competition can be a motivator.

But it can also deflate one’s spirit, creativity and passion. Because competition can discourage you from focusing on the grace in your unique life, the gifts of your own life, family, job, and the blessing you are to others. You are beloved by God, created in the image of the Divine, endowed with a special gift to share with the world.

And it doesn’t matter that someone is passing you on the road; it doesn’t matter what other people are doing. It only matters what you are doing. How has our cultural obsession with competition and comparison stifled your growth and held you back?

Second, what do you do when you get held up at a red light that slows down progress? The red lights in our lives are usually those unfortunate events that are unexpected, stressful and require the loving support of others. No amount of goal setting can turn this around: a family member suddenly turns ill, you receive a discouraging diagnosis, a friend dies, tragedy strikes, the bottom falls out on your personal life, you lose your job. If you’ve set some lofty goals before any of this happens, you’re into a major reset on life. After all, “Life happens,” they say.

Finally, what do you do when you are distracted by the radio, crazy drivers, or your cellphone? These are issues we probably have the most control over, whether we like it or not, whether we take responsibility for them or not.

Most of the ‘distractions’ of life are self-imposed. We do it unto ourselves — lifestyle choices that are really counter-productive, habits that immediately gratify but are ultimately self-destructive. We enter here the realm of addictive behaviours that can de-rail any idealistic goals for self-improvement. So, they say, instead of watching that show, go for a walk; instead of staying up late on social media or surfing the net, get some sleep; instead of indulging in that second helping, pack away leftovers for lunch the next day.

This inner struggle can drive us over the curb and into the ditch! The passers-by, the red lights and the distractions on the road of life throughout the year often cause us to abandon those goals altogether.

I wonder what some of those first desert wanderers did to cope with the reality of the terrain over which they travelled. I wonder how the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) following a star in the sky, coped with seeing others pass them by on the caravan routes whenever the star appeared to stop in the sky? I wonder how the Magi, following that star over what must have been a long period of time, dealt with the red lights of set backs that surely must have occurred on the trail? I wonder how the Magi kept their spirits up when the desert creatures, sand storms and bandits threatened their safety and resolve on the journey? I wonder what would have happened if they said, “Let’s just give this until January 11th, or December 21, or December 31 at midnight — and if that star hasn’t brought us to the Christ-child by then, let’s go home!”?

Perhaps the wisdom of the ancient story of the Epiphany has something to say to us about how we traverse the terrain of our lives today. As we set goals and resolve to do certain things in 2015, perhaps it would be wise to pay attention to how we travel over the long haul of our lives, and not just fixate on the specific goals themselves.

Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just at Christmas and Easter — to worship, pray and give thanks? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — not just when times are good, but especially when they are bad — to reflect on the Word and the meaning of our faith in Jesus? Will we pause regularly on the side of the road — regardless of our ‘goals’ — to remember the One who walks with us, who is always by our side, who is ever faithful to us and steadfast in love for the whole world?

And thank God, that we always have a second chance to press the ‘reset button’ on our lives, reflect again, and start anew! Year after year! It is a miracle and grace that we even consider a fresh brand of New Year’s resolutions every January 1st. Despite the failures, we still go back to the drawing board every New Year.

In 2015, perhaps our goals need to be a little more open-ended and less prescriptive. The magi had a goal, to be sure: to follow the star to where the newborn king was born. But that goal could lead them anywhere! They didn’t presume it had to be Jerusalem. They didn’t presume it had to be in a palace. They didn’t presume it had to be in their own home country.

When the goals are set with this kind of openness, Murphy may still lead the charge, uncertainty can still be the only certain thing, and change be the only constant on the journey of life. But we still trust that God’s promises are true and that eventually our yearning and longings are resolved somewhere in God’s unconditional, and never-ending love.

Happy New Year!

A ‘fussy’ Christmas?

I was stunned, as I am sure many were, to see photos last week of snow-covered Bethlehem. They say it was, for that Mediterranean region, the first such weather event in over a century.

And over the past century, biblical scholars have criticized Hallmark and other popular artists for depicting these snow covered fields around Bethlehem with sheep softly grazing; ‘they are not being historically or factually accurate’ we critically-minded people complained.

We were critical of such romanticized attempts to depict a ‘perfect’ Christmas from the Canadian perspective. Isn’t it true, though? In the weeks before Christmas, don’t we invest a great deal of time and energy trying to achieve that picture-perfect Christmas? How can you have Christmas without snow, after all?

We ramp up our expectations. Just like they do with movie trailers. Months before its theatre and weeks before its home release, we watch these 60 second teasers, which are designed to wet our appetite and raise our expectations to the awesomeness of the next super-hero, blockbuster flick.

Should we be surprised, then, when we are disappointed? Our expectations have been managed. Marketing gurus have effectively created an appetite, a need. The result: sadness. Many at Christmas feel an emptiness that their lives and families prevent them from having the sort of Christmas they believe they should have. If I don’t get that perfect gift, I’ll be depressed. Right?

Have we ever questioned why we have these expectations in the first place? From where have they come? Who is telling me, ‘It ought to be this way’?

If anything can capture and convey the true meaning of Christmas, a story will do just that. Listen, then, to the story of the ‘fussy angel’:

“When Jesus was born as a tiny baby, God wanted Him to have a special angel to guard Him. But it wasn’t St. Michael the great warrior archangel he chose; nor the mighty archangels Raphael and Gabriel.

No, it was the smallest angel in Heaven that caught God’s eye. ‘This one will do well,’ the Father said. Which proves that God works in strange and mysterious ways.

“But on that Christmas Eve when Christ was born, the little angel was not happy with what he found. ‘This will never do,’ he said, looking around the cold and drafty stable. ‘Get those smelly beasts away from my Master,’ he ordered, tugging on the donkey’s tail. ‘Who knows what diseases they carry and they’re breathing in his face!’ ‘Hush, little one,’ Joseph said. ‘Their breath is warm. They comfort him.’

“There was a cobweb on the manger. Mice peeped out from under the straw and, perched on a beam above where the baby lay, an old crow gazed downward. The little angel grabbed a straw broom and began some furious sweeping. ‘The King of Kings and they dump him in a barn full of animals,’ he muttered. ‘It’s terrible.’ He waved the broom at the crow but the bird ignored him.

“….At midnight the door of the stable burst open and a group of excited shepherds tumbled in. The shepherds fell on their knees, their leathery faces pointed in the direction of the manger. ‘Where’d you lot come from? You’re tracking snow inside. Keep the noise down. Can’t you see he’s sleeping?’ the angel warned.

“A young shepherd took a woolly lamb and laid it at the foot of the manger. ‘What good is a lamb? A sheepskin blanket would have been a better idea,’ said the angel. ‘Can you imagine how prickly it feels to sleep on a bed of hay?’ But Mary smiled at the shepherd boy and bent to pat the lamb.

“In the early hours of the morning they heard a camel snort and into the stable proceeded three wise men. They were richly dressed. Mary held the baby on her knee and as the kings approached, they laid at her feet gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“’That’s very pretty and quite useless,’ the angel observed. ‘If you were truly wise you would have known that what we need is hot water and towels; goat’s milk and bread; twenty diapers and some soap to wash them with.’ The kings turned their proud faces on the angel and were about to reply when the baby gurgled with delight and waved a royal fist in the air. Tempers cooled and everyone smiled … even the angel.

“Outside over the fields and houses of Bethlehem, angel choirs were singing in joyful chorus – ‘Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.’ The angel stepped outside. ‘The night’s not silent but it’s definitely bright,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen so many stars. What was God thinking of? How can anyone sleep with all that light? We need curtains to shut it out.’

 “He found some sack cloth and pieces of straw and blocked the holes in the roof and walls of the stable. ‘Blow out your lanterns,’ he ordered the shepherds. ‘The baby needs some sleep.’ But even with holes blocked and lanterns dimmed, the stable was bathed in a golden glow. From the center of the manger a light shone that penetrated the darkness and it seemed this light would never be extinguished.

“By now the angel choirs were piling up ‘Glorias’ which shook the heavens with their strength and timbre. The angel strode outside again: ‘No, no, no! Brother [and sister] angels, have pity on him. He’s human now and needs to sleep. Turn the volume down!’

“But the heavenly choirs could not be silenced. Crescendo after crescendo rang out with such power and majesty that the people came out of their houses and gazed fearfully at the skies, wondering what was happening.

“Sure enough, inside the stable the baby had wakened and was back on his mother’s knee. The angel hung his head in shame. ‘It’s a mess,’ he groaned. ‘My poor master! What can I do?’

“Mary reached her hand toward the angel. ‘Come and see,’ she said. She drew back her veil and the angel looked at his tiny charge. And as he looked, his frustration melted. ‘Why everything is perfect,’ he thought. ‘It’s just the way He wants it to be. Smelly animals, prickly straw, silly gifts and loud music. The snow and the thin, sack blankets. It’s human and it pleases Him.’

“…. he was [then] struck by a surprising thought. This poor stable would one day be more famous than Buckingham Palace or the White House. In the hearts of the people everywhere the stable with its dirt floor and broken walls would be the most glorious palace of all ….” (Mary Arnold, The Fussy Angel, Ignatius Press, 1995).

Tonight, I welcome you to consider how you relate to the newborn Child of Bethlehem. Remember – God’s not looking for the perfect place to be nor the perfect person to do God’s will. God does not demand a perfect situation or people in order to fulfill God’s purpose and be present with God’s love.

Each of us is invited to come and kneel at the manger. I think Jesus and his ‘Abba’ Father in heaven would be happy – pleased – simply for us to come, to give what we are, and who we are, just as we are. What a gift – the greatest gift at Christmas, barring all expectations! – for Almighty God to receive us with such mercy, acceptance and grace. ‘Just the way we are’ is the best offering we can give to the tiny, newborn Jesus, who is our healing and our salvation. How can we resist such love?

Peace on earth, and in your heart, this Christmas.

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