The gospel of Luke records the birth of Jesus in this way: “And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (2:7)
This is a holiday season like no other. How we miss so many of our usual celebrations, events, rituals, and gatherings. Given all, we have been through, and given all that we are currently facing, it can seem like there is little room in the “inn of our hearts” to celebrate the peace and joy and hope that we normally proclaim during this season. And more than 17 million people have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 300,000 have died; businesses have been shuttered; millions are unemployed; thousands have been evicted; our hospitals are full; our front-line workers and first responders—bless them—are beyond exhausted; and our political situation may perhaps be more fraught with confusion, acrimony, and difficulty than ever before.
Although all of these challenges may make it hard to celebrate Christmas this year, I would submit to you that we must find a way to proclaim light over darkness, hope over despair, courage over fear, and peace over all the forces that can divide us.
Sometimes in order to go forward, we need to go backward. Sometimes in order to ascend out of our current reality, we need to descend to our roots, origins, and beginnings. In order to find Christmas this year, I invite us to go back with our minds and hearts to the night when Christ was born. Everyone who was there and everyone who showed up can give us a message that can lead us to celebrate Christmas this year.
Let us start with Mary. We need to remember that nine months before this holy night, an angel appeared to her and invited her to bear God’s child. As Mary pondered this incredible invitation, did she contemplate all that was at stake? Did she know that this child would be the hope of the world, that this child would need to give His life to reconcile us to God, and that this child would pave the way through sin and death to eternal life? Although we don’t know what Mary thought about at this moment, we do know what she said: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
I totally believe that the angels of God have never retired and that they come to us and invite us to bring the presence and peace of God into the world. The question is not whether they come; no, the question is what we will say when they do. When Mary said “yes,” the angels of God rejoiced, and God Himself breathed a sigh of relief. When we join Mary, the same holy drama happens.
Let us turn to Joseph. About six months before this holy night, Mary told him that she was pregnant. When he looked at her with anguish and grief, she told him that the seed in her belly was not from a man but from God.
The gospel story tells us that Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.’” (Matthew 1:19-21)
Just as I believe that the angels of God are still alive and active, so I also believe that God sends us holy dreams—dreams which beckon us to trust that God is with us, that God loves us, and that God’s grace covers and forgives all we could ever do or not do.
The question is not whether God still sends his holy dreams to us; no, the question is whether we will follow Joseph’s lead and trust in them. When we do, Christmas is not a memory from long ago. Instead, it is our current reality and hope forevermore.
Let us turn to the shepherds. Unlike the cute and winsome shepherds of our Christmas pageants with our children dressed in their pajamas and bathrobes, these original shepherds were a gnarly and grubby bunch who were probably disinclined to believe that God could ever come to them. On that dark night, much like with Mary and Joseph, an angel appeared to them and said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10b-11)
When the shepherds went to Bethlehem and knelt on their hardened knees, did they know that they were meeting their Shepherd and the Good Shepherd for all of God’s people? Did they see that this baby boy would be able to lead God’s children through all dark valleys, through all shadows of death and despair, and through all adversities? Did they see in His tiny hands the power to carry us all to God?
The question is not whether there are many things and losses and circumstances that are bringing us to our knees right now; no, the question is whether we will follow the lead of the shepherds and kneel before the only Shepherd who can give us the hope and peace we so desperately need right now.
This is a holiday season like no other. If all that you are going through has caused the “inn of your heart” to shut down or shut out the joy and hope of this season, I implore and beckon you to go back and follow the lead of those who were there on that first Christmas night.
When we say “yes” like Mary to bearing God’s presence, Christmas will be ours. When we trust the holy dreams sent by God, Christmas will be ours. When we kneel alongside the shepherds, Christmas will be ours.
There is only one person who was there on that first Christmas night we still need to remember—and that is, of course, the Christ-child. My friends, go as deep as you can into your hearts, into your needs and into the needs of all mankind, and into the deepest desires of all of God’s children and try to see His face. If we look beyond all the challenges of this time, what do we see on His face—which is both the face of a tender child and the face of the One who holds the whole cosmos together?
I believe that what we see in His face is love without limits, hope without bounds, grace without ends, healing beyond all sickness, and joy beyond our wildest dreams.
My prayer and hope are that each one of us would pray—and pray like our life depends upon it because, of course, it does—that we would pray until we receive a glimpse of His face. When we do, we will know that what makes Christmas not just a yearly celebration but a dance for all eternity is the room God has in His heart for us.
Christmas love, Christmas joy, Christmas peace, and Christmas grace to one and all. Amen
The Rev’d James W. Nutter
December 19, 2020