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December 24, 2023 – The Rev. Katharine Flexer

By January 1, 2024No Comments

Last week our children here put on a marvelous Christmas pageant, enacting in witty yet reverent style the beautiful story of tonight, Luke’s nativity story that we just heard. There were wisecracking angels and a solemn Angel Gabriel; there was a small sheep who lost his breakfast and helpful older shepherds who cleaned up
the mess; there was a very young, very serious Mary who was handed a very large, very squirmy real Baby Jesus. And in one of the best moments of the pageant, as the child began to squirm and cry more and more on her lap, Mary’s eyes got bigger and bigger, until finally the stage mom of the baby actor scooped him up and carried him offstage. The relieved Mary bent down and grabbed the small plastic baby doll that she had stowed under her chair, and total peace was restored. And I thought, ah Mary, we’ve all been there. What parent hasn’t had some moment when they wouldn’t have preferred trading their screaming, fussy baby for a quiet, unmoving doll?

But then, didn’t that original real Baby Jesus cry and fuss? ‘No crying he makes,’ we sing in ‘Away in a Manger’ – but I don’t believe that for a second. Even Jesus got hungry and needed his diaper changed; even Mary must have been exhausted sometimes. And isn’t that the point of the Incarnation? God in our reality, not in
our pretend?

One of my favorite Christmas carols is one we’re not singing tonight, O Little Town of Bethlehem. I love it for its zoomed-out image of the town, all still and peaceful, with this extraordinary event unfolding within it. Most of the town is in deep and dreamless sleep, and yet ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’ From afar off, that’s what Bethlehem might look like. Even New York City might look like that from far enough away.

But it would be folly to pretend that the actual town of Bethlehem tonight is sleeping in heavenly peace. It is silent, far more silent than normal for this time of year, without tourists and pilgrims there to celebrate Christmas, all the usual festivities canceled. There is only the faithful remnant of Palestinian Christians gathering in the churches, one of them with its nativity scene set in the midst of rubble, the baby wrapped in a keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian scarf. The pastor of that church told a reporter, “God is under the rubble in Gaza, this is where we find God right now.”

It’s not the first time the sweet manger scene has been reinterpreted in a place of war and desperation. In the last several years there has been Jesus born to a family of refugees in Border Patrol cages, the pregnant Mary and her Joseph homeless on the sidewalks of New York City, the three kings fleeing warplanes overhead in Syria – and a nativity set made from the casings of bullets fired in the Liberian civil war. Throughout the ages, artists have found ways to place this simple story in the context of our own modern horrors. It’s a way of reminding us that the real baby cried and the real parents were scared too – and yet God was present, even in the rubble. Making peace out of our violence.

And it also reminds us that it has ever been thus. This present darkness of our world is not the first iteration of darkness. The last two thousand years have been marked by war and strife, genocide and fascism, poverty and despair. It can easily be argued that for all the horror of our news today, things are a ton better for us than they were in, say, 476 (fall of Rome) or 1346 (bubonic plague) or 1526 (first African slave ship). It’s only through the wonders of modern communication technology that we know about, and thus feel so keenly about wars and conflicts happening halfway around the globe, of epidemics and mass murders hundreds of miles away, of natural disasters unfolding in another state. Those stories can and do overwhelm us and they somehow feel defining of our time – and yet we have modern medicine, ample nutrition, safety-patrolled streets, an abundance of consumer goods. Sometimes it’s good to pull back and remind ourselves of this, get a little perspective on what’s really true about our lives.

But the news is all-pervasive for us, and hard to escape. And I think the darkness overwhelms us also because we have a harder time fighting it off somehow. Maybe it’s the decline of religious faith in our culture, this lack of resilience and hope. Or it’s a symptom of our isolation from one another, when we wall ourselves away in our own dark corners. Or it’s a result of our emphasis on individual achievement and success, that we so greatly fear vulnerability and loss. Probably it’s all of those combined. But whatever the cause, we need Christmas now more than ever.

This Christmas story is so very simple. God is made incarnate in a little bitty baby of a poor family in a backwater place under occupation. No character in the story is great and famous, except Herod, and he’s just the bad guy. The town of Bethlehem is so very little and unassuming. Yet right there in those shabby streets, the hopes and fears of all the years are met. Nothing is done to magically change the poverty and suffering happening all around that little baby child. He doesn’t grow up to overthrow the occupation, take away all sickness, put a chicken in every pot and make us all happy always. He doesn’t skip us all ahead to heaven – we’re still here muddling along on this tarnished earth. And yet this little story keeps breaking our hearts open all these thousands of years later.

The darkness is overwhelming. Nothing any one of us does can change the course of the war in Gaza, or the grief of a family who has lost their child, or the path of a wildfire through thousands of homes. We are indeed helpless in the face of suffering on this scale – or at least, we feel ourselves to be helpless. But we too easily discount the power contained in the small and ordinary – the thoughtful smile from a stranger, the fostering of an unloved child, the phone call to an elected official, the note to an elder living alone. So many little, small, ordinary things we do and can do to address the darkness. These things take a little of our time, they inconvenience us, they don’t seem effective enough. But then we bitterly complain that ‘no one is doing anything’ to make the world a better place. Maybe we need to remember that it’s ours to do too – to hold that squirming baby and give the mother some relief, just for a moment. Because that’s how the light gets in. And once it’s in, it’s amazing how it grows.

The poverty and realness of the Christmas story is our salvation. If God can be in the rubble of Bethlehem, then God is also in the rubble of our lives; if the world can be changed because of a tiny baby, then our own small actions make a difference; if light shines in the darkness 2000 years ago, then it shines in our darkness now too. Hope is right there to be grasped. Light does continue to shine, in and through and all around us. If you find it too hard this year to find that hope and light by yourself, then stick around here with these people tonight, and keep coming back to be with them – we practice hope here. You don’t have to have it all put together by yourself. God is right in the middle of the shabby and the little, the lost and the least. In the rubble, in this little town, in our midst. And right there, the wondrous gift is given. Merry Christmas.

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