Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
At 9:00 pm on Wednesday December 13th, my extended family welcomed Laura Jane Cooksey. Weighing in at 8 lb. 5 oz., little Laura is the first child born of the nieces and nephews’ generation. She is angelic, of course, in her first photo, swaddled in a maternity hospital blanket. Mom looked great too! Yes. There is spontaneous and deep-felt joy in welcoming a newborn child. But we know, don’t we, what those happy smiling photos leave out when taken after all the pain, and blood, and vernix has been carefully washed away.
The shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger as the angel had told them. Presumably, the scene they encountered was not like the nativity scenes of plastic and wood many of us have in our homes which are likewise far removed from the very raw and very human process of birth. Perhaps we would prefer to leave things such as these out of our Christmas story. But these things must be included if the incarnation is to be real. “…these are the kinds of things that make up our faith: the naked, the primal, even the offensive. And while Mary’s story turned out the way she’d hope it would—with a newborn child in her arms—not all stories turn out that way. What the nativity scene as we’re used to seeing it fails to show us is that our faith is made of that too: the sadness, the questions, the longing, the despair, the anger. Encompassed within the birth of Jesus is the deeply difficult and deeply beautiful, the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the material. Like our lives, it was fleshly and carnal—and it was also holy.” (Kat Armas, Sacred Belonging: A 40-Day Devotional on the Liberating Heart of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2023), 154, 155.)
The altarpiece in our side chapel is one of the most beautiful works of art here at Immanuel and takes us a step closer to beholding what is being said in the lowly birth of Christ. (You’ll have to go into the chapel to see.) The shepherds (unfortunately, not depicted in the photo shopped image on the cover of your worship folder), are poor. Dressed almost in rags, they celebrate in great joy and awe the angelic message that somehow came exclusively to them.
This is the gift and promise of incarnation: the fullness of the presence of God is pleased to dwell in you, just as you are. There is no dress code at the manger. There are no prerequisites you must fulfill to receive this Christmas gift. All the colorful lights, happy-spirited music, parties, sparkling paper, gifts of the season, and high-minded theology tend to conceal the stupendous Christmas miracle: that you and I are always in God’s presence.
The hallmark version of Jesus’ birth is cute, but it cannot help us deal with heartbreak; it cannot deflect the hard, sharp pain of a pink slip, or the death of a loved one, or any of the countless tragedies unfolding in the world today. If the manger is to be good news, if it is to be good news to us in our hospital room, or in our living room, or in all the places where tragedy may befall us, it must also include all the messiness of our fleshly lives in which God comes again this Christmas to be born.
Of all the nativity scenes in all the world perhaps the most astonishing might be the one displayed this year in Bethlehem, where Christmas festivities have been cancelled due to war. There, the Christ-child lies in a manger of rubble from bombed buildings and destroyed homes in Palestine. This is the other message wrapped up in the incarnation. In addition to gift and promise, there is also a call and invitation to discipleship and to loving our neighbors as deeply and fervently as we love ourselves.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor recounts listening to Mother Theresa explain why she served the poor. “People say we’re social workers,” she said. “We’re not social workers! We’re Christians who worship Jesus as Lord and therefore serve people made in the image of God.” Taylor thought to himself: “I could have said that too!” But, he wondered, “…could I have meant it?” (Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith, 2011) It’s easy enough to sing Christmas carols and string lights on a tree; that’s what we do each year for Christmas. But sooner or later like Taylor, we must ask ourselves, “do we mean it?” (Daniel Clendendin).
There’s a wonderful Christmas tradition called Las Posadas that I find has special meaning for me this year as we seek to shelter so many families who seek asylum. For nine evenings, from December 16th to the 24th, Christians in Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of the Southwestern United States go door-to-door asking for shelter reenacting Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem.
It lasts nine days to represent the nine months of pregnancy Mary played host and shelter to the infant Christ. Mary was the first person to say yes to the incarnation. Las Posadas literally means “accommodations,” or “inns” and traditionally involves a procession through the streets knocking on doors of neighbors who shout they have no room and slam their doors shut, after which they open them again to join in the procession to the next house. Each night ends in prayer and a party because Mary and Joseph do a find room.
On any given day, it is estimated that 6,139 people, most of them children, experience homelessness in Chicago. (City of Chicago 2023 Point-in-Time Count & Survey Report of People Experiencing Homelessness). Where will Mary and Joseph find room among us today?
Like those wrapped and waiting for you tonight under the tree, the gift of Christmas must be un-wrapped if it is to be received. We must peel away two millennia of culture, commerce, and holiday traditions—to re-discover the surprising/challenging/wonderful message— God in Christ comes to us again this Christmas. The fullness of the presence of God richly dwells with us and in all the messiness and fleshly complications which that implies.
To each of you is given a gift God has chosen especially for you. Each of us finds welcome, belonging, joy and love to warm our soul and unfold our fisted minds, hands, and hearts. Mary “treasured and pondered all that was said about Jesus in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Among those at the first manger in Bethlehem, only Mary followed Jesus to the cross. You and I, together with Joseph and Mary, are gifted and challenged this night to open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to behold—a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and nestled upon straw who fills our life to overflowing with the presence of God that is given tonight—for you.