It all seems perfect tonight doesn’t it? The sanctuary is softly lit with candles, draped in lovely fabric and the music is familiar, full of joy and hope. If things went well, at home the presents are all wrapped and the children have new pajamas to wear as they open their gifts. The tree is up, decorated and everyone appears happy, the fridge is full of food and everyone has plans. We are all aiming for the perfect Norman Rockwell painting, right? Do you feel it? That warm glow that comes at Christmas Eve; the one everyone wishes would last all year long?
And of course, the birth of Christ plays along, right? Right? No one wants to admit to a Christmas that is less than perfect. No one wants to admit they just had a fight with their parents, that the ham got burnt, or that the real reason they couldn’t get gifts wasn’t lack of time, but lack of money or desire to shop. And of course, no one likes to hear stories about hard labor, struggling mothers and infants or goopy stuff like placentas and amniotic fluid on Christmas Eve.
The reality is we are not living in a Norman Rockwell painting. And the nativity story does not fit either. If you have either spent time around a pregnant woman or been one, there is a sick and twisted need for folks to share every birthing horror imaginable with her. Somehow, as much as we love a good clean birth story, the fact is, they just don’t actually exist. All of them are laden with pain, with body fluids and general ‘ickiness.’
But then we have Jesus and Mary. Apparently, if we read it straight and let our happy holiday buzz run away with us, Mary gave birth without a moan, without a tear, or the biology of birth itself. Think about it. We imagine a manger, filled with sweet smelling hay, surrounded by softly lowing cattle that are brushed and clean, and soft sheep that bleat quietly in the background as clean perfect clothes wrap a perfectly shaped baby who has not an ounce of “stuff” on him. Mary, herself is smiling, with perfect hair and is happy with only Joseph standing confidently by.
But that is not the world Christ came into. We want it to be the way he entered, because it makes us look better, and certainly to feel a little less guilty that an unwed teen age girl gave birth surrounded by donkey dung and unwashed animals on a dirt floor. We want to believe she did not cry out or sob as she gave birth, not just for labor pains, but because she was a child giving BIRTH, who missed her mother and was without a single female friend she knew. The reality is, if she was lucky, there was a midwife to assist, but likely, Joseph was there, scared witless with rough dirty hands more accustomed to working with wood than soft human flesh. And rather than a cradle, made by Joseph for this child he would raise, the baby, wiped but not washed, with a freshly cut umbilical cord, was laid in a manger, which was nothing more than a glorified animal food dish filled with scratchy, pokey hay. There was no special birthing room. No comfy chair or bed, no family around to encourage, nothing recognizable or even truly habitable for this girl to give birth to her child.
The hard truth is that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a world that was not and still is not welcoming. Her reality is that of slave women giving birth in fields and being forced to continue to pick and carry 80 lbs. of cotton an hour later. Her reality is that of girls in Nigeria, taken from their homes and sold into sex slavery, of the transgender woman with AIDS who dies alone in the hospital, and the homeless man who is spit on or walked over without a backward glance. Her story, Jesus’ story, is one of coming into a world where working families live in cars, elderly people go without either medicine or food and humans fleeing danger and death in absolute terror are told, “No, thank you, we don’t want you here, can’t someone else take you?”
And if this sermon seems harsh, if I am killing your baby Jesus buzz and shattering your image of the perfect birth that we all love to have on Christmas Eve, then I have accomplished my duty. Because a Jesus born into a world that was sweet smelling and perfect, welcoming and warm was not a Jesus we needed.
We are imperfect and our world is a dirty, ugly place when we really look around. No matter how hard we try, it is NOT a Norman Rockwell painting by far. Children are starving, people are dying, families are hurting and we are all looking for the light, for the one thing that keeps us looking up and holding on.
That is the world that Christ is born into- a world that needs him. A world that needs salvation and hope. The good news this Christmas, despite the ugliness the light of day brings, is that Christ brings true light and life to us, and we can find hope and comfort in the words told to the filthy stinky shepherds, “Do not be afraid, 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.”
Tonight, as you leave, with the warm “feels” of Silent Night wrapped around you like a warm coat, see the world for what it is, who we are and then, in the moment it seems really hopeless and dark, give thanks. Not because we are broken and unable to create the perfect Christmas, but because Christ is born, the son of God who would save us all, into a lowly manger and immersed in our iniquity. Our Savior has come, the light shines in the dark, our hope is here, Emanuel has come, O Israel.
Sermon from Christmas Eve at Mt Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California 2015.