Martha was a student in my university course on 16th century Women Reformers, a course that just finished this past Friday. In her review of the class, Martha wrote that while she found the women we studied courageous in their commitments to speaking and acting publicly, her own interests were clearly centered in 2014 not 1514: “I live only for the present moment,” she wrote with an exclamation point. “I don’t want to spend my life dwelling on the past. It’s like Christmas; you can take out it once a year and look at it, enjoy it for a day or two, but then you need to put it away and get on with life.”
I say it would be tempting on this Christmas Eve to imagine that we have gathered to “take out” a cherished story from the distant past, to look at it and perhaps enjoy it, to sing those carols that tell the ancient tale in poetic form, to receive communion, and then go home: go home utterly unaffected by the story, the singing, and the communion, satisfied that we have kept another Christmas in church. Were we Christians of another stripe, it would be easy to let the ancient story remain here in the crèche in what soon will be a darkened church, except for this: that we hear and sing the simple words Today and This Day again and again in the Mass. As a refrain throughout the entire service, throughout the entire Christmas season that now unfolds before us, the liturgy itself corrects any notion that we are here simply to remember a birth 2000 years ago.
For the persistence of Today and This Day alerts you and me to this profound Christian claim: that just as God has been present and acting in the past, so God is present to you and me, and desires to act among us today. Perhaps, then, the ancient story of the first century might shed light on our deepest longings, on our hopes and fears, in the twenty-first century.
Thus Luke writes that Jesus is born at night – not in the brightness of day – born at night so that when you and I cannot see clearly, when the next day or the next year appears murky, when you and I experience more shadows than light, God is already present in the darkness, waiting for us with love, not condemnation because we lost our way, but waiting with love to guide us in and through the night.
Luke suggests that he is born to a people conquered and suppressed by military violence and economic colonization, born in the reign of the Emperor Augustus – so that you and I might question and resist economic coercion or acts of violence, small or great, as the preferred means to extend one’s personal, corporate, or national “interests” throughout what we confess is God’s world and among God’s people.
He is born to an unmarried and uneducated teenager from an utterly insignificant village, thus upsetting, perhaps, our notions of who is acceptable to us and who is blessed by God; born with no proper social pedigree, perhaps causing us to wonder: Why would the Creator of the universe prefer a poor village girl to a princess, a prima donna, a woman of better standing?
He is born in pain, his mother pushing hard, breathing rapidly, and crying out, born in pain so that you might know God is with you and with this world in whatever pain is experienced, suffering with you and me and this world as a mother who feels the pain of her beloved child and yet is waiting, waiting for you and me, her children, to tend the wounds of those who suffer around us.
Though later generations will portray him as a royal prince and worship him as the king of kings, let us be clear: he is born in poverty and never escapes it, born on the margins of a wealthy empire, and thus invites you and me to question an economic system that tragically values only the productive and profitable.
His birth is proclaimed to shepherds, a class of workers who live hand to mouth, calling into question what it might mean to receive a living wage today. He is born in the town of Bethlehem, whose name means House of Bread, and thus is present today whenever the hungry cry out, Give us this day our daily bread; present today, among us, giving his very life to you and me in the bread and cup of the Eucharist and thus inviting us to share our treasure with the hungry poor of our city, asking the leaders of our nation: When will you secure the equitable sharing of food and drink among all who dwell in this land?
Yes, I think it would be so much easier to let the ancient story remain here in the rustic crèche. But, then, such a sentiment would miss the whole point of keeping the feast and that is Christ’s persistent longing to be born and reborn in you and me, to draw us into God’s labor to establish the reign of love and forgiveness, of justice and peace, here in the Emerald City, our own Bethlehem.
Thus, there is to be no thanksgiving without the request that any and every good gift, every blessing, be shared rather than kept for oneself, given away rather than hoarded, offered to the one whose needy hand is open and waiting, waiting for that merciful impulse in you and in me to become, perhaps, the unexpected blessing that will prompt the stranger, the homeless mother, the hungry child, the last minute guest at the table to give thanks to God for the generous impulse within You.