25 Dec 2011
“‘And 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 …
This night is where the story begins. It’s what the famous theologian Karl Barth once called the story of “the great reversal.” When Jesus was born, there was no land of Israel, no king of Israel. The Jewish people were scattered far and wide. The covenant fulfillment based on the land and the king seemed like ancient history or only a distant hope. Even the Temple seemed lacking. John the Baptist, a central Advent figure, the son of a Jerusalem priest, and an heir to that same title and position, abandoned the Holy City. In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that the word of God came to John, not to command him to leave Jerusalem, but after he had already left for the wilderness.(3:2) Some-thing was profoundly absent in the acts of official worship, and John went in search of what was missing. Only once he had left Jerusalem, only once he had entered the wilderness, only then did the word of God come to John. His experience was not unique for crowds of people sought out John and his message of: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” God and His people seemed to be drifting apart, but then … came this night, this moment of the “great reversal,” of an infant lying in an animal’s manger.
During Advent we heard of the coming Messiah in grand and powerful imagery, probably the most famous of all from Isaiah: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (9:6) But then the “great reversal” takes us by surprise, even scandalizes some. God comes not with power and halos, but as a stranger. No one in Bethlehem even knows this family from Nazareth. No one is willing to open their doors to them. Joseph and Mary are unknown and unwelcome. We’ve cleaned-up the Christmas story of the manger. Every Christmas Play has an inn-keeper who kindly lets the Holy Family at least use his barn, but there is no inn-keeper in Luke’s Gospel. What is closer to the story is that Joseph sneaks Mary, who is now in labour, into a dark and secluded barn hoping to not be noticed. This isn’t permission; this is desperation. In darkness and fright, Mary gives birth to the child. They wrap Him in swaddling clothes, torn pieces of rags, and they lay Him in the warm straw of an animals’ manger because they have nothing else. This is the night of that gloriously scandalous story. This is the night of the “great reversal.”
God isn’t drifting away into irrelevance. He’s not separated from us or unaware of us. A scared mother, a worried father, an untimely birth, unwelcomed strangers. This is God’s story. It’s not how we would have told it with our preference for the grand and the mighty. But because there only a few who are grand and mighty, God came to us instead as the child of the Bethlehem manger. Now God belongs to all of us, and all of us belong to God. Jesus is a mediator and a reconciler between God and us, and amazingly for both us and God, Jesus is a revelation. In Jesus, we now know God better and even God knows us better. This is the night of “the great reversal.”
By entering our world with no pretense of power, wealth or even the holy, Jesus brings God to all of creation without distinction. He brings God to saint and sinner alike, to Christian and atheist. No one, no religion, owns Jesus. He comes so unlike what we expected of God that we have been warned to not play God. He comes so like all of us that we have been honoured by the comparison, and at the same time challenged by it. Christmas tells us of the sanctity and sacredness of creation, and it asks us to treat each other and our world accordingly. It is the “great reversal” of a once seemingly distant God who has now become one of us, and as one of us, can now ask us and inspire us to be godly ourselves
A friend once told me of his mother-in-law who was visiting from China. She is a convinced atheist, and is perplexed by many of the professions of faith that she hears, one of which is Christmas. Her question to her son-in-law was why, if Jesus came for all people, why didn’t He come as a Chinese person? More than 25% of the world’s population is Chinese. Why be born Jewish when they number only .2% of the world’s population? And the reason is that Jesus came belonging to no one so that He could belong to everyone. This is why Jesus was born in the dark by sneaking into a stranger’s barn in an unwelcoming city in a defeated country. He didn’t come as Chinese or Jewish; He came as us. No preferences. No distinctions. No exclusions. This is the “great reversal” that begins with Christmas.
Last weekend we put up our Christmas tree over at the rectory. A number of years ago, our tree fell over and so my father had welded together a heavy steel plate and a heavy steel cylinder. The trunk of the tree has to be cut to fit into the cylinder. No matter how I seemed to cut the tree, I could not get it to stand straight in the cylinder. It leaned terribly to one side or the other. I finally gave up, went outside, grabbed a rock, and stuck it underneath the steel plate. Now the whole contraption is cock-eyed, but the tree stands straight. Christmas is God’s rock under the Christmas tree stand. It’s how God has set straight this cock-eyed world of ours. The flaws don’t disappear. Life is far from perfect. This is obvious to all of us. But because of Christmas, with Christ beside us as one of us, we can all stand a bit straighter, take a little bit more, and do a bit more. That’s the “great reversal” of Christmas. This is why Christmas is a gift of hope, peace and even joy. We’re not only commemorating what once happened; we’re celebrating what is still happening from that moment that God became one of us when Jesus was born. God is not locked away in perfect heaven. In Jesus, God dwells with us in this cock-eyed world that Christmas blesses and makes holy. May the blessings of this holy night awaken us as God’s people to His presence all around us and within us. For this we pray in the name of that holy Bethlehem baby. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo