Christmas Day Homily, 2022
On Christmas Eve, we tell the story of the birth of Jesus with the kind of excitement that takes our breath away. Our voices are hushed as we marvel at the miracle of God choosing to be born as a baby so that we might know him. We sing the Christmas carols. We light the advent candles. We re-tell the amazing story of our faith that God entered into our human experience so that the world might no longer be separated from him. But, this Christmas morning, I’m reminded that the miracle took place within very human circumstances. A census. Taxes. Political unrest. Disruption to everyday life. Inconvenience. A woman due to give birth any day. Frustration. Fear. Uncertainty.
Emperor Caesar Augustus had called for a census–a counting up of his people–most likely so that he could raise taxes to fund his vast army and help pay for his lavish lifestyle. Unlike the censuses we participate in today, there was no mail-in option. Every family had to travel to the city of their family line to be counted. And I imagine there was no way to opt out or file an excuse, like often happens with a summons for jury duty. Both Mary and Joseph were descended from the line of David, and that meant they had to travel to Bethlehem, the city of David, to be counted. It didn’t matter that Mary was expecting to give birth any day. It didn’t matter that they would have to find a way to travel 90 miles or so. It didn’t matter that it was inconvenient, even dangerous, to be traveling at this point in Mary’s pregnancy. The emperor demanded it, so it had to happen.
Mary and Joseph set out for Bethlehem. The text doesn’t tell us how long it would take them to get there or how many stops they would have to make along the way. I notice that Luke does not tell us Mary rode a donkey like many of the paintings depict, but I also can’t imagine she walked 90 miles on foot that many months into her pregnancy. Perhaps she did find respite on a donkey’s back as she and Joseph made the trek instigated by a greedy ruler’s demand.
Along the way, it came time for the baby to be born. I wonder if Mary and Joseph remembered the story of the birth of Benjamin when Jacob and Rachel were traveling from Bethel to Ephrath. On the journey, Rachel went into labor, and though their child was born safely, Rachel died. I imagine Mary and Joseph felt anxious. The baby would be born where? Mary and Joseph looked for a safe place for Mary to deliver her baby, but the inn was full. The holy family ended up out back with all the animals, with only a feeding trough for a place to lay the new baby God has promised them.
I’m reminded of this powerful poem by one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle.
The Risk of Birth
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor & truth were trampled to scorn—
Yet here did the Savior make His home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
They wrapped the baby in bands of cloth–swaddling clothes, as the King James puts it–and they laid him in the manger. I imagine he was comforted by the softness of the hay in the trough. I can’t imagine a more human way for the Savior of this world to be born: away from home, in the humblest of places, with the thumb of the emperor pressing down.
That night, the miracle continued as the shepherds received the good news of great joy that Jesus had been born. The shepherds, people in a humble profession, in dark fields doing a tough job, Pastor David Lose puts it this way:
“In this respect, perhaps we are like the shepherds called from their fields. At the bottom of the socio-economic world of first-century Palestine, the shepherds have no right, no expectation, no hope in the world of being touched by the divine. Little wonder, then, that they are terrified by the appearance of the heavenly host. (It isn’t too much to wonder if perhaps they obey only because they can think of no other response to the angelic summons. “Let us now go…” indeed!) And so they run to the stable, stumble upon the tender — or is it meager? — scene of this mother and child and wonder what on heaven or earth they have seen. They tell others what they’ve witnessed — what else can you do when you’ve been touched by the divine? — and all are amazed by what has happened.”
Into a world stressed by power hungry rulers, a world where many were so poor they didn’t know where their next meal would come from, a world filled with uncertainty, doubt, and fear, the Savior of the world was born. For us. For you. For me. On this Christmas morn, let us receive the good news of great joy for all people. Let us hold it in our hands, receive it into our hearts, and allow the beautiful mystery of it all to bring tears to our eyes.
In closing, let us allow the words of the poet Jan Richardson to bring us back to that holy night so many years ago–-the holy night that changed everything.
On that Night
On that night when
you are holding
your very last hope,
thinking to let it go
as too small to be saved
on that night when
you turn away at last
from the far horizon
over which you had thought
your life would come
to find you;
on that night,
this is where
will give way
to the mystery
and the blessing
that seemed so distant
come to meet you,
holding your heart
in its two