Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord
“And when we give each other Christmas gifts in His name, let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon and the stars, and the earth with its forests and mountains and oceans–and all that lives and move upon them. He has given us all green things and everything that blossoms and bears fruit and all that we quarrel about and all that we have misused–and to save us from our foolishness, from all our sins, He came down to earth and gave us Himself.”― Sigrid Undset (Norwegian-Danish novelist)
That beautiful quote was in the Christmas card from old friends of ours this year, parents of one of my best friends. Enclosed with the card was a letter that began with the announcement that at the age of 80, my friend’s father had given up nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol. It was a hard physical withdrawal (which he details in the letter at some length), and now as he sits to write he feels bitterly the loss of his pipe and coffee. But, he wrote, he remembers how his Midwestern Norwegian mother always used to say, ‘Oh well, you won’t have that problem in the grave.’ And, he says, it cheers him up right away. (The letter just gets better from there, by the way.)
The juxtaposition of those two things, the beautiful Sigrid Undset quote and the morbid humor, tells you a lot about this man. But this is hands down my favorite Christmas letter of all time. Because I think it gets right to the heart of it all. Everything is a gift – freely given, freely received. And when we hold it lightly we receive it all the more.
We gather tonight around this old, beautiful, simple story of the Nativity. And what a story it is. It’s such an unlikely story for someone who accidentally became the founder of a new religion (which Jesus didn’t think he was doing, by the way – Jesus was Jewish, a deeply faithful Jew of his time and place, important to remember in these days of rising antisemitism). It’s not much of an origin story for a superhero, all those poor people in a backwater place, no glitz and glamor at all. Just shabbiness and smells and uncertainty. It is amazing, truly amazing, that this is the location for our story of God coming to be one with us, Emmanuel.
But perhaps it was entirely intentional. Perhaps God didn’t come as a baby born in a palace because we might get all the wrong ideas from that. And it can be hard in a palace to keep your integrity. There’s a lot of power in a palace. There’s a lot of gold and comfort and deferential treatment. The lifestyle can make it all too easy to compromise.
Because later this baby will grow to a man, and before he begins his public ministry he will go out into the desert to prepare himself. There he will meet with three temptations – to turn the stones into bread, for he is famished; to command the angels so he won’t get hurt; to take control of all the kingdoms of the earth. In other words, he will be tempted to grab power and purpose for himself rather than to live into God’s purposes for him. Which is basically our temptation, there, in a nutshell. How much harder it might be for Jesus if he’d already been used to comfort and plenty.
No, at Christmas we start with the simplest of all stories. We go back to the story of the baby laid in the manger and the poor young couple, and the shepherds, no one else of any account. It’s no wonder the secular world tries to leave this story behind in the celebration of Christmas, in the watered down references to ‘the Christmas spirit,’ whatever that’s meant to be. We struggle with the lowliness of Jesus, because we don’t want that lowliness for ourselves. This story of poverty and smallness is an affront to all we try to hold onto for our own meaning and purpose.
At a deeper level we know this, of course: that’s why we keep making and watching all those classic Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life – your worth is measured by how you help others, not by your success. Or Miracle on 34th Street – the profit motive even for Macy’s isn’t as important as caring for one another. Or A Christmas Carol – you gain nothing by holding onto your wealth. Even Home Alone and Elf: all the high-powered jobs or fabulous vacations in the world aren’t as good as your family being together. All these secular stories about ‘the Christmas spirit’ – we watch and re-watch them because our hearts know better, even if we can’t quite get our lives to line up with our wisdom.
Meanwhile the health of the retail business depends on our Christmas shopping. 942.6 billion dollars is the forecast this year. The economy hangs on what we are buying. And we keep doing it, despite fears of a recession, and we are frantic about getting more. I still remember the Christmas I worked for customer service at a catalog company, taking call after call from people who were deeply angry and upset that their packages hadn’t arrived. You’re ruining her Christmas, one man told me, when I apologized that the holiday-themed blanket for his daughter couldn’t get there in time. It was a deeply unsettling experience, working that job.
But it’s not just the holiday consumption. It’s how anxious we are when the stock market goes down. How stingy we can be with our giving of time and money. And how tied up in guilty knots we are about all that we have, when so many around us have so little. It’s hard to live in our palaces, as God knows. (And it leads us into all kinds of loudly spoken and fervently held opinions about the world – smokescreens for our own lack of integrity. I’m convinced that this guilt over inequality fuels much of our political discourse these days, on both sides of the aisle.) Blessed are the poor, Jesus said, and I think he meant in part because in scripture to be poor, or poor in spirit, means being off to the side and out of the limelight, unencumbered with the complications of wealth and possessions, aware in every moment of our dependence on God alone. Our self-sufficiency trips us up a lot, in so many ways. We are glutted and anxious, all at the same time.
The truth is that we were created to live in abundance – look at the story of Adam and Eve. They weren’t placed in an arid desert to scrabble out a meager existence, even though that was the context of the location the story came from. They were placed in a lush garden, with everything they could possibly want and need. There as a gift. There to be received, with gratitude. There to be nourished by. But not to grab hold of and amass, Eve with her pile measured against what Adam had managed to hoard. And not there to forget who it was who gave it all to them, who it was who liked to walk with them in the garden in the cool of the day. They were created and not the creators, part of the beauty of creation, part of the abundance all around them. As are we.
What if this Christmas began the year for us to come back to that simplicity? I’m not talking about what is or isn’t under the tree, or how much Christmas spirit you have, or whether your week matches the secular vision of a perfect holiday. I mean what if we start again tonight with accepting who we are – each one of us God’s beloved child. God’s beloved, given so much. God’s children, naked and lowly and humble in birth and death. God’s beloved, shown in Jesus what it looks like to live fully surrounded by and dependent on God’s love – nourished through the good and the bad, upheld through fat times and lean. God’s beloved who don’t have to pile up securities and second and third and fourth homes to feel safe because we already are. Held by God in the wilderness, fed when we need it, led through the valley of the shadow of death, never abandoned.
The simplicity of the story – it is our story as well. Whether we were born in plenty or in scarcity, whether tonight we go home to much or to little. We are children of God’s abundance, meant to live in joy and gratitude and to hold it all lightly – ready to give it to others, ready to give it all up. Because it is God who holds us, tightly, powerfully. So we can let go. Merry Christmas. And blessings to you all.