25 Dec 2013
“‘This will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’” (Luke 2:12) In the name …
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving I went over to the church fair at the South Deerfield Congregational Church. Glenn Woods had a table there filled with pictures that he had taken around the area. I was looking through a bunch of them. Many of the spots were familiar to me, but there was one picture that I just could not place. Glenn assured me that I had seen this place hundreds of times. It’s too small for everyone to see, but let me ask just a few of you if you’re any better than I was at figuring out where the picture was taken. … [Drainage ditch between Yankee Candle parking lot at hgwy] Glenn told me that he looks for hidden beauty when he’s taking his pictures, beauty that we can easily pass right by and never see or appreciate. That reminded me of an Albert Einstein quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” With these ideas of hidden beauty and unappreciated miracles floating around in our post dinner and celebration heads, and at an hour when we’re usually more likely to be sitting on a couch rather than a pew, let me ask you to think of Christmas as an offensive story. You heard me right, an offensive story.
2,000 years ago there was a grand and majestic city atop Mount Zion. King Herod was a favoured ruler in the Roman Empire, and with that he brought power and wealth into Jerusalem. A great edifice of that age was the Temple he was building to Yahweh. It would have swallowed whole the Temple erected by Solomon almost a thousand years earlier. And in the Holy of Holies of that Temple, there was nothing but darkness and empty space. This was a profound and pious statement that nothing made by human hands could ever approximate the likeness of God. God was so holy as to be unknowable, unapproachable, unimaginable. Levite singers born into their jobs as ones chosen by the Almighty filled this holy space with music as they sang: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. … I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established. … O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps 8: 1, 3, 9)
About five and half miles south of Jerusalem and about 15 hundred feet lower in elevation from Mount Zion was the little village of Bethlehem. These five miles were a world apart. Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city filled with royalty, soldiers, merchants and priests. In Bethlehem, shepherds would have been more the norm. The Son of God could have been born in Zion, could have worn the royal purple, could have been protected by legions, could have had His birth acknowledged by wealthy gifts and Temple liturgies. Instead, there was no room for them even in Bethlehem. The Bible shares no cute story of an inn keeper offering them his stable. We can imagine Joseph and Mary as if they were sneaking into any one of our garages or barns hoping not to be discovered, and terrified that they would be. They try to remain quiet and in the dark. Instead, Mary goes into labour, the most dangerous time in a woman’s life long ago. She gives birth in anything but a sterile environment jeopardizing the health of the child. Her child is first held by the strong, rough and calloused hands of Joseph the carpenter. Joseph passes the child back to His mother and her tender embrace. They have no soft cotton blankets decorated with baby animals and Sesame Street characters. So they wrap Him in swaddling clothes, torn pieces of old cloth and sack.
A solitary angel off in the distance announces the birth to shepherds in the field, working folk often ridiculed by their neighbours with strange and unflattering stories about them. And the angel announces Christmas to them saying: “‘You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’” But the absolutely wondrous announcement from heaven’s angel is that “This will be a sign for you.” (Lk 2:12b,a) The sign, the proof, the evidence that God has entered His creation is this child first held by Joseph’s calloused hands, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and huddled in a manger hoping to not be discovered and thrown out into the night by strangers. The God sung about as “how majestic is your name in all the earth,” whose Temple was a castle fit for the heavenly king, entered our lives as the helpless child of a Bethlehem manger. He came to us defenseless, humble, a stranger, and this, said the angel, was the sign from God that the child was the very Son of God. This is God’s intentionally offensive story of Christmas, and we should never take the offense out of the story, because the offense is the sign.
There is an unseen beauty and a hidden miracle in Christmas’ offensive humility. The unknowableness of God was erased the moment Jesus was born, and in a wondrously offensive way. No one before Christmas, or for that matter after Christmas, would dare talk about God in this fashion. The child first held in Joseph’s course hands is the revelation of God’s majesty as being one among all people. The child nestled against Mary’s warm body replaces the empty darkness of the Holy of Holies with God’s love and intimacy. The angel’s announcement to shepherds tells us that the glory of God is anywhere and often in the most surprising of places. And that the Holy Family were unwelcomed strangers challenges us with the message of social justice, that God is among the outcast and the needy. But most important of all is that Jesus was born one of us. There is a sacredness to our lives and as offensive as it may sound there is humanity in God. This is why Christmas is so holy to us and why it is filled with joy and promise. May that Christmas mystery fill our hearts and homes this night and may the Holy Child bless us all. For this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo