Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Christmas came early at our house this year. On a pastor’s schedule, in a blended family, it’s normal to celebrate special days on another ordinary random day when all our calendars align. Families do whatever they must do. Mostly it works out just fine. Dinner was homemade macaroni and cheese with lots of fixings—a first. Worship was Holden Evening Prayer at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Evanston—also a first. Leah was the cantor. Back home, we read Luke chapter 2 (our gospel tonight). We sang some carols, and despite our effort to economize, there was a great mass of presents under the tree. As seemed well.
Trouble came as the presents were distributed and piled at our feet. In the scramble to be ready Kari and I got our signals crossed somehow. Parents know, instinctively, the presents must balance out. Yet to anyone looking at the piles it was obvious. Christmas this year would not be fair.
Christmas would not be fair. I still feel bad about it. But then, I think, when has Christmas been fair? Between families, between zip codes, between states, and nations the disparities between what God intends and what actually happens is obvious and extreme.
But still, we expect big things from Christmas. We expect gifts and laughter, rich foods, and sparkling décor. We expect quality time together. We expect conversations with friends and family. We need all these things because we are so lacking in them. The theme song for Christmas 2021 may be that old one that pleads, “we need a little Christmas right this very minute…. For [we’ve] grown a little leaner; grown a little colder; grown a little sadder; grown a little older…[that’ why] we need a little Christmas now” (Need a Little Christmas Now, Lyrics and music by Jerry Herman).
We expect big things from Christmas. So, it’s almost startling to notice, the shepherds didn’t. Clearly, whatever else they may have been expecting that night, they were not expecting angels… or a savior in the form of a peasant child in a cattle stall. Why should they? Their life wasn’t fair. No one expects the unexpected.
What does Christmas mean to a world of people in so much pain? The angelic message came to those living on margins of society, among those living in the fields without a roof or a bed. There is nothing romantic about their theophany; the life of the shepherd was lonely, harsh, and unappreciated. Angels came to simple, unwashed, religiously unclean and unworthy shepherds. God’s glory – mysterious, tremendous, and fascinating, to quote Rudolf Otto – came in such abundance that it overwhelmed the shepherds in its grandeur so much the angels had to comfort them saying, “Do not be afraid.” God brings “good news to all people,” even shepherds, through this joyful birth.
Good news. Great joy—is for all people living throughout this unfair world. Maybe instead of high expectations, Christmas should be a day of shattering our expectations. Maybe this day, among all days, is a day to pause, take a breath, and remember how the miracle of Christmas began—with the utterly unexpected gift of God who is preparing, right now, to light up the sky around you with love and tenderness.
We humans are intensely social creatures. Minimal group studies done by psychologists prove how quickly people will make sturdy alliances even in groups that are totally meaningless and random. People assigned to groups that are barely even groups, assembled on the spot, based on nothing, favor others in their group almost immediately. They give more money and resources to members of their own group. They will try, as much as possible, in cleverly creative, cooperative, and spontaneous ways, to make their group wealthier than others, even when offered the option of maximizing the amount of money for everyone, at no cost.
The fact that we humans have an almost unstoppable propensity to clump ourselves together into groups, I believe, is evidence that we are children of God. But this innate drive and desire goes off the rails when unity is based upon lies, or when our focus is too narrow and small.
The first best gift of Christmas is that you belong. You’re part of a special group. You were assigned, not at random, but because of who you are. You are created in the image of God. You belong, therefore, to the inner circle of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the communion of the Trinity. When Christ becomes a part of our circle, love for family, clan, tribe, political party and nation expands to include everyone, even our enemies. In fact, when Christ is born again in our hearts this Christmas, our natural drive to sacrifice on behalf of our group, aligns with all creation -with all life everywhere.
This first, best Christmas gift is distributed to us all, each day, in every moment. It waits for you wrapped in swaddling clothes. This gift too is unfair, not because it is unequal, but because it is undeserved.
The Christmas Mystery has two parts: the Nativity and the Epiphany. “A deep instinct made the Church separate these two feasts. In the first we commemorate God’s humble entrance into human life, the emergence and birth of the Holy, and in the second its manifestation to the world, the revelation of the Supernatural made in that life. And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too. The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first.” (Evelyn Underhill, “Incarnation and Childhood,” in Light of Christ: Addresses Given at the House of Retreat, Pleshey, in May, 1932 (Wipf and Stock: 2004), 40, 41–42, 45.)
Our Christmas devotion, therefore, does not end when we extinguish these candles. The story did not end with the outcry of the shepherds who made known what was told to them about the Christ child (Luke 2:17). God’s most unexpected gift finds its purpose as it reaches all the way in you and takes shape in your chosen lifestyle with an utterly transforming power.
Ye are the light of the world—but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the One Light of the World. And being kindled, we pray the seed of grace born in you this night takes root and grows so that God’s love becomes manifest in you through your love for all people –and may Christmas be just a little fairer in an unfair world.
The mystic Thomas Merton wrote, “Make ready for the Christ, Whose smile, like lightning, Sets free the song of everlasting glory. That now sleeps, in your paper flesh, like dynamite.” )Thomas Merton, “The Victory”)