Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“In those days …” (Luke 2:1)
I have here a small stone—no, a shard of concrete, really. There is nothing particularly remarkable about at first glance, except that, it was once a part of the Berlin Wall, that infamous Cold War symbol of division and repression.
Once you know that bit of information, certain features of this little stone start to stand out. On its face, you can detect the remains of some spray paint—perhaps it is part of what was once an anti-communist slogan, or someone’s plea for freedom, or a message to a loved one trapped behind the wall. It’s indecipherable, really. The fragment is just a small piece, only a hint, of something much larger.
And this little stone, I think, has a lot to say to us about Christmas. For if you find that making sense of what Christmas has to do with the idea of a God who created all things—well, welcome to the club! Christmas is confusing, because it’s such a small piece of a much larger story. Christmas is like this little splinter of concrete; just a trace, a tiny part, of a story that is much longer, and much deeper than the one episodic incident that we get tonight.
Think of it this way. Christmas is just one piece of a very large mosaic that is the story of God and of God’s creation. Looking at the one piece, we only see a fraction of that larger picture. It’s a very beautiful hint, but still only partial. The task of our lives is to find out where and how that piece—and all the other pieces we are given over time—fit in to the vast and beautiful mosaic that is God.
So to have any idea of what Jesus’ birth is all about, you have fit that piece into some idea of what it means to say that the life we live, is a gift given to us by a creator and that it is not of our own making. You have to have some idea of what has gone wrong with humankind, such that we hurt one another, wage war against one another, and live according to the ways of corruption and mendacity, rather than justice and truth.
You have to have some idea of what Jesus did and taught as an antidote to all that. You have to have some idea of what his way of peaceableness meant to a society torn by violence. You have to have some idea of what the inexhaustible nature of his life meant to a world mired in a culture of death.
You have to have some idea of how Jesus gives the gift of his own presence to those who follow him, so that they might live the life of mercy and compassion that he lived. You have to have some idea of the hope that following Jesus inspires, and of the ways in which countless individuals through the centuries have found him to be the way of peace and reconciliation.
If you have no idea of all of that—then Christmas is simply an isolated fairy tale at best, or a rather unlikely legend masquerading as fact at worst. That’s why, week by week, communities of faith like St. Michael’s tell and retell the whole story over and over again—knowing that we never get it quite right, that we never get to the bottom of it, that we never fully digest its meaning, but that unless we keep trying to see the whole picture, then none of the bits of the mosaic will make any sense.
But back to this little stone. As I said, it was once a part of a wall that deliberately divided and separated people from one another: East Berlin from West Berlin, the Communist Block from Western Europe. We as Americans stood for tearing down such walls, believing that true freedom means, among other things, freedom of movement. Perhaps this stone was located near where President John Kennedy defiantly proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” challenging the idea that such divisions can persist or even exist. Perhaps it was near where President Ronald Reagan prophetically challenged the Soviet bloc by demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
And when the wall finally did come down, razed one astonishing night by the picks and sledge hammers of the very people it had tried to contain, this little fragment, and thousands more like it, were transposed from being a means of oppressive control, to being symbols of hope. The bits and pieces of the wall became reminders that when people of courage act collectively, they can do great things; and that such courage comes from moving beyond seeing things only partially, to recognizing the whole panorama of justice and peace. In short, these fragments became symbols of the power of the human community, when it acts together for good and with a clear-sighted vision of the goal.
Christmas, too, is full of little bits and pieces: story fragments like Mary and the angel, Joseph and his dream, a Roman census, a plodding donkey, a busy inn keeper, an empty cow shed, some visionary shepherds, a mysterious comet in the sky, strange foreigners arriving on camels … on and on it goes.
But fragments can add up to something truly significant—whether the bits and pieces of concrete that became a wall of separation, or the bits and pieces of the Christmas story that ultimately fit into a majestic picture of nothing less than “a cosmos that is capable of love” [as Joseph Bottom wrote this week in the final issue of The Weekly Standard]. For if you put the bits and pieces of this night together with all those other bits and pieces that we trace here throughout the year, that is precisely what they start to reveal: a world that is made by love, through love, and for love.
Revealing that larger picture is precisely what our life in community here in church is all about. As the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Each of us is like a little stone, but together we reveal the face of God to the world. No [one person] can say: ‘I make God visible.’ But others who see us together can say: ‘They make God visible.’ Community is where humility and glory touch.” That is the true hope of this very fragmentary night, which despite its incompleteness, is nevertheless part of the inexpressibly beautiful mosaic of God. Amen.