The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
There are some who might think what we’re doing here tonight is quaint, but out of touch. Bearded and robed figures hover over a baby, surrounded by a numinous light and barnyard animals: a rustic fantasy, a brief, charming distraction, but no more than that. After all, what does Bethlehem have to do with the real world?
We all know what’s going on in the real world. We’re living with terrorism and war that are like a dark cloud, always on the horizon. We’re in the middle of an economic freefall - many of you are directly affected, and you’re in real distress. And, of course, the usual dysfunction and suffering that afflict many of our families and become painfully obvious during the holidays.
But it would be a shame if we just wrung our hands over this current state of affairs and didn’t see the possibility for transformation within it. As Bishop Mathes told us 10 days ago during his visit here, “A catastrophe is a terrible thing to waste.” We have something spiritual to learn from the time we are in; we needn’t waste it.
It would also be a terrible waste of our time tonight if we were to use Christmas Eve merely as a pleasant distraction and then went back to slogging our way through this hard world. We might as well stay home and watch It’s a Wonderful Life.
So let’s take a closer look at the nativity scene and see if it offers something deeper than spiritual entertainment. But first, I have a confession to make. Sometimes I get weary of the baby Jesus in the manger. Sometimes I tire of Christmas carols, Santa, angels, and holiday sparkle. Give me something meaty, like the doctrine of the Incarnation: In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
But then the manger scene sneaks up on me like a Trojan Horse. It is so deceptively innocent and charming on the outside. But inside, it is full of the mystery and power of God. Here, in this ancient story, lies so much more than a sentimental diversion. Here is the key to meaning and hope: for our times, for our real life, here and now.
Joseph, a poor man, made his living with hard labor. Mary, a very young woman, perhaps a teenager, was in the last term of her pregnancy. Along with thousands of others, this little family was compelled by the occupying forces to travel a hundred miles on foot to fulfill some bureaucratic requirement – a census for Caesar. It was a cold night; there were no rooms to rent. But a kind offer was made - a stable out back with animals and straw. Then the everyday miracle of a human birth - those little fingers, those clear eyes. Village shepherds wander by to have a peek; tears, laughter, wonder, and peace for all, in spite of the hardship.
It is a scene of so many basic human realities and emotions: fear, vulnerability, poverty; generosity, tenderness, and love. If we take away the heavenly chorus and the 3 Wise Men and the angels, it could be anywhere, anytime. It could be a peasant family in medieval China or in a modern African refugee camp, a laid-off autoworker’s family in Detroit, or the home you left to come here tonight.
Every family, every human person knows what it is like to feel powerless; we all know the joy of intimacy. We all see light in a newborn baby’s eyes; we all know the protective parental instinct. We too are comforted by animals and kind strangers. We look up at the starry sky and see the glory of God.
It is this simple, basic, human scene that we hold up tonight and say This is holy. Our common, earthy life is divine. Here, in our humanity, is where God is to be found. Not all of reality is defined by the dangers and crises of the world, what kind of house or apartment or car we can afford, what shape our bank account is in, or even how comfortable or happy we are.
The manger shows us a more secure reality, something that is always close at hand. For nothing can take away the sky above, the embrace of a friend, a song and a shared meal, or the opportunity to be kind. Our life is holy; everything is always filled with God. The manger brings us down, out of our heads, out of our worries, into this basic fact. This is the glory of Christianity on our principal feast day: not some overblown holiday spectacle put on by a cast of thousands, but the tenderness of a little family one night.
I remember years ago when my family took a rare vacation abroad, to Fiji. I was standing on the deck of a boat, cruising close to tiny islands. My young sons and I saw barefoot people coming out of thatched huts, hanging clothes on the line, picking fruit off of trees, chasing chickens. I was suddenly struck by a picture of how I live. I said to the kids “What a bizarre world we live in back home.We zoom around in metal boxes on asphalt streets, go in and out of large stuccoed buildings to buy more and more things we don’t really need, stare at electronic screens, and worry about numbers on a financial report. Look at these people.”
Now I don’t romanticize poverty, and I like living in the modern world. But there is another dimension, close to the earth, that I don’t want to lose touch with. That’s why I love to travel to third-world countries; that’s why I love living here in New Mexico. I want to be grounded in the divine that is always found close at hand.
Jesus said “Blessed are the poor,” “You must become like children,” and “those who humble themselves will be exalted.” His mother Mary said that God “has lifted up the lowly.” Don’t think of Jesus, however, as a naïve escapist who believed that if you just magically regain your innocence, you can ignore the ugliness of life and the mandate to make this world a better place. He, like us, was no stranger to suffering, complexity, and conflict.
But he also knew that in the midst of all this, there is God, always God. There is always hope and meaning and beauty, here and now, in the gift of our humanity, in the gift of creation. All is alive with Spirit, everything is infused with the divine. We can live in love, gratitude, and awe at any time, no matter what struggles we also endure. We can humble ourselves, like children, becoming lowly, close to the ground. Paradoxically, this is what will exalt us and lift us up.
This is what the Christmas manger brings us back to. It is not a sentimental distraction from “real life.” It is real life. This is what the Incarnation is all about. God is not off somewhere in heaven, but here and now. Spirituality is not limited to the prayer experts. Happiness need not be postponed until we fix up this broken world, until we solve our personal problems. All we have to do is awaken to what already is. To remember this is always liberating, for it frees us from being dependent upon circumstances going the way we want them to, and it grounds us in something that can never be taken away.
And so this present financial crisis is a golden opportunity for each of us. For when things get hard enough, they can also become quite clear. Perhaps this crisis and whatever hardships you endure will turn out to be transformative; perhaps they will have the effect of returning us to this manger, to a truer, more human life; perhaps we will remember that our common, earthy life is divine.
If we do, then we will not have wasted the catastrophe of our day or the passing struggles of our personal life. And we will not have underestimated the power of this little nativity scene. We will open our eyes, soften our heart, and receive the miraculous birth of new life that God offers us this, and every night.