This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
We were supposed to be back by now. This church full to the brim, if not overflowing in the pictures I had in my mind, including the candlelight service for those who stay up past their normal bedtimes. We would be having people over for an overladen Christmas buffet, and we’d be talking about the joy of having survived a pandemic as we raised another glass. Our family would then be hopping a plane on the 26th to the desert Southwest for the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park to celebrate 25 years of marriage, 50 years of my life, and a decade of shared ministry here at St. Mark’s. Instead I am preach a Christmas Eve sermon to you while looking at a camera and my son sitting behind a computer screen and nothing else is stirring, not even a mouse. Our vacation remains on hold, our feast and raised glasses substantially toned down, and the only people we’ll see will be found in those tiny boxes of impending Zoom.
This is definitely not the way it was supposed to be.
Which I’m sure were exactly Mary’s thoughts as she rode that donkey late in her last trimester to go from the comforts of home to her fiancé’s family’s hometown. That route is 100 miles these days if you take the Yitzhak Rabin Highway. Zipping along at a good clip, you’ll make it in 2 and a half hours if you time it right with traffic. But even today, with a woman in her last stages of pregnancy, you’ll be due for at least one stop along the way. But in Mary and Joseph’s day? You’re talking 3 or 4 days as a best case, and more likely 6 or 7. With Braxton Hicks contractions and being overly tired, and the stiffness of sleeping outdoors overnight, and the pain of riding that blasted donkey, oh I’m quite sure Mary was thinking this was not how it was supposed to be.
And then when they finally got to Joseph’s ancestral village, they couldn’t find a single room to stay in. In other words, distant and not so distant relatives didn’t want anything to do with them, given their pre-marital status and Mary’s rather large belly. What they did get were icy stares, and whispering behind their backs, and people shaking their heads wondering how Joseph who had been such a nice boy could get into a mess like this. His fiancée pregnant before the wedding? Scandalous. And if they thought that they would be getting a wedding present from them when the time came, well, they were sorely mistaken. So, Luke tells us, Mary and Joseph found their way to a place where the animals were kept because there was no room for them in the inn.
But regardless if this was the way it was supposed to be or not, that baby came all the same. “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger.” It was not at all what she expected, but it was still wonderful in its simplicity all the same. The little one she held in her arms had been promised by the messenger Gabriel earlier that year. And that same angel told Joseph in a dream that this baby would bring about salvation for his people. And after the months of waiting, this babe had finally come into the world. Was it what they imagined? Lord, no. But it was perfect.
Not in that Hallmark perfect sort of way, mind you. Clearly the Holy Family is still in the barn, and while manger scenes depicted on Christmas cards these days are all neat and tidy, I can assure you that it isn’t nearly always the case. Most holiday depictions have Mary and Joseph looking bright and cheery, and the infant Jesus calm and serene, which is a far cry from the reality I remember when our kids were born. Dark circles took up residence under our eyes as utter exhaustion became a way of life. The little one got hungry quick, and then there was all the frustration and anxiety when that baby couldn’t figure out how to latch right away. Tears flowed freely, and emotions ran high. It was not even close to “perfect” like the way it gets shown on those cards with everyone in their places and smiling and looking directly at the camera.
But perhaps the reality of what took place back then can be a balm to us now. Perhaps this year more than any other can finally shatter the reality that Christmases—and our lives—don’t need to be perfect after all. As gifts get lost in the mail, or finances run much too tight; as we gather with the same ones we’ve been cooped up with for the last nine months, or once more finding ourselves entirely alone; as we stare at the place a loved one used to sit or wish that things in our world could be so much different, it’s a relief to know that when the Son of God came it wasn’t to a wealthy official living in a palace. He came to an unmarried couple who had been relegated to an outbuilding.
And instead of being heralded with fireworks and trumpets and proclamations as befitting his status, his first visitors were the poor shepherds working the graveyard shift nearby who had been tipped off by some angels. Keep in mind that Mary and Joseph didn’t see the heavenly host in their vast array, they just had to take the shepherds’ word for it. And at the end of it all, Luke writes, Mary held on to and treasured the experience in her heart and the shepherds praised God.
It was smashingly, achingly perfect.
Because in the last analysis, the point of Jesus’ birth is not to bring a windfall to merchants, or a pile of gifts to our kids. It is not to have our homes ready for a photo shoot, or a table straight out of Bon Appétit. The point is to simply celebrate the coming of this one who is called Emmanuel. God with us. God with us. No matter where we are or where we have been, God remains with us. No matter the circumstances swirling around us, if we are in the midst of the best year ever or the annus horribilis, God remains present. No matter how far we have wandered from home or those we love, God is with us.
That is the good news of this night, the truth first experienced by a young couple forced to remain out in the cold. Jesus broke into our dark world on that silent and holy night and with his birth God proclaimed that we would never be alone again. That each person who has walked the face of this planet can be assured that God would be with them through it all, no matter how difficult.
No, this Christmas is not at all what any of us expected, but perhaps it can be the one that finally and fully convinces us of the depth of God’s love for us. That in the bleak midwinter, a child was born in order to lead us to life. To bring us hope. To offer us joy. And as filmmaker and lawyer Valarie Kaur describes it: “Joy is the gift of love.” She continues, “Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we think we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love.” Jesus has come into the world this night for us. Let us gather at the manger in wonder. Let us return once more to love.