Good afternoon and Merry Christmas!
It’s a privilege to share this very special time of the year with you today! I hope this Christmas will be as beautiful and happy as you wish it to be; whatever it is that you enjoy the most about Christmas, I hope you will find it! And there is for all a special something we may long for…I was reminded of that a few days ago as I have a friend who, instead of posting family pictures on Facebook, uses to send “conversations starters”. And so a few days ago, he asked all his friends what they loved the best about the Christmas traditions. As you can imagine, he got a lot of responses, very diverse: Some mentioned the carols of course, some mentioned the family meal, others talked about the presents, I talked about the creche, a woman playfully responded: “The best tradition about Christmas? I think it’s Jesus!”. But at any rate, everybody had something to say about what made Christmas special to them.
I am telling you that because I thought it was great to see so many people being excited about the holiday, because the thing is I’ve recently also heard a lot of people saying that this year, it was more difficult for them to be in the spirit of Christmas. I’ve heard a lot of people saying that this year they felt that their hearts were not really in the holiday. And they all had good reasons why. Some of them were going through personal crisis, mainly broken relationships, but I’ve heard also a lot of people, including clergy, saying that it was harder for them to enjoy Christmas because they had a sense that the world is really not doing well and there is a lot of concerns about the future: climate change, economic recession, the way we have been treating one another in our society, you name it… And so actually I thought that maybe my friend asked this question about what we love about Christmas because he too had a sense of general gloom and so, in the midst of all what weigh us down, he would help us be in touch with a little of Christmas’ magic by reminding us how enjoyable it is. He made me think of my dad who told me a long time ago: “There is always something magical about Christmas, always. And it happens no matter what, no matter how much we mess it up”. I think it’s right, there is always something to enjoy about Christmas, no matter what. And as we gather for our service, maybe we can take a few minutes to go deeper and try to understand what this magic is all about.
What is the magic all about? Well, I recently went for the first time to see a performance by a magician. And one thing that I noticed and thought was really fascinating is that the magic always happens in a setting that is very ordinary. Actually, as the show unfolds, the magician keeps on insisting that everything is ordinary. He keeps saying: We stand on an ordinary scene, I am surrounded by ordinary people, I hold in my hand an ordinary box and so on…But suddenly, as the magician moves on the scene, asks questions to the people or opens the box, something incredible happens: The magician starts levitating or he can guess what people are thinking or he opens the formerly empty box and there is a bouquet of roses in it. And that’s what the performance is about. If you go and see the Nutcracker, it’s extraordinary from beginning to end but you cannot say it’s magical. Real magic comes out of the ordinary. Real magic is when something completely unexpected comes out from the most trivial reality. The thing is, this is also true in the world of the Gospel, especially in the Gospel we have today.
We have gotten so used to the Christmas story that it is hard for us sometimes to realize what was really happening on that night, but if we listen closer today, we will realize that it is all very ordinary to start with. Joseph and Mary were heading on a journey they probably didn’t want to take. They had to go to Bethlehem to complete an administrative errand, register for taxes purpose. It is about 100 miles to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem, certainly not something you want to do when you’re nine months pregnant, especially if you have to ride a donkey. Then, they could not find a comfortable place to stay, and if they found shelter, they still had to share with the cattle, which is unlikely the best place to deliver your first born. We can romanticize their poverty, but if you’ve ever had to ride three buses to go wait in line at the DMV or if you’ve ever been stuck overnight in an airport with a sick child, you already have a very good sense of what they were going through. The Gospel today is about ordinary lives with their daily anxieties, and yet, yet in the midst of them, this is where God is manifested. I guess for most of us, we see spirituality and holiness as something far away and difficult to reach. But the Gospel tells us that we don’t have to live in a perfect world to find the divine, we don’t need to abstract ourselves from the stress, the difficulties and sometimes the pain of this life to encounter the divine, this is in the very midst of ordinary life that God comes to us. And to me, this is what the magic is all about.
In the dark days of the Roman Empire, when the people of Israel were oppressed and crushed with taxes: That’s when Jesus decided to be born. And so I think it should give us hope too when our lives are not perfect, and even in those times when our world can seem darker than it used to be. This is the promise of the prophet Isaiah: A great light comes, for those who lived in deep darkness. The great light does not come for those who found their way to the light, if you notice. The light comes for those who live in deep darkness. And so, we can have hope, because the Gospel does not happen in some fantastic scenery that is out of reach. The Gospel happens in the real world with all that’s in it. I read recently something beautiful written by the African theologian Jean-Marc Éla that sounded to me very true. He said: “The world of the Gospel is the world of hunger, of wealthiness and injustice, of disease and exclusion, the world of death and slavery. And yet, this is is this world that God is manifested.” The world of the Gospel is our own world, our very ordinary and sometimes very dark world, and this is in this world that God is manifested. Not in heavens, but here on earth. With us.
So what difference does it make, and how God is manifested in our world today? Well, we often say that Christmas night was very quiet, and some find it amusing because most babies are everything but very quiet. But what we mean when we say it’s quiet is that we have to pay attention. The sign, according to the angels, is a baby wrapped in bands of cloth, laid in a manger. Nothing but very ordinary. And yet, it makes all the difference because it’s about love, and love makes it all worthy. I don’t have any child of my own, but I met a lot of moms in my life and I don’t think I’ve ever heard one of them happy about the process of giving birth and yet, never I have ever heard one of them say that they should never have had their children because delivery was too painful. It would seem absurd to say such a thing, wouldn’t it? Of course, it’s worth it. And so, maybe this journey was the worst for Joseph and Mary and yet it turned into something so wonderful for the love manifested in their baby. If you have ever really loved someone, you know that already. Being with those you love makes it all worth it. It does not mean that suffering is part of the plan. It means that there is something bigger than our suffering that is worth living for, and it is the love of God and the love for each other, and if you think about it, this is all what Jesus’s life and teaching will be about: Showing us the love of God and teaching us to love one another.
So maybe when the times seem more difficult, this is the call we have to answer: loving God and loving each other even more, so we can be brave enough to face the pain, the disappointments and the anxieties. We’re not on our own. God is with us. Jesus came to show us the love of God and to teach us to love one another, he still does and we can rely on him. Christmas means that God is with us and so it’s the end of loneliness as we have always known it. Is it divine irony or sense of humor, I don’t know, but I love it that, as Luke notices, Jesus was born during the first census that ever happened in human history. As the Romans were counting the people, it is as if God said to them: Count me in. Count me in also, I want to be a part of this. Count me in, I want to be part of history and I want to be a part of everyone’s story. So count me in. And as you count me in, they will be able to count on me: to love, to comfort, to strengthen, to liberate. This was at least Isaiah’s promises and we are witnesses of how those promises have been fulfilled in Jesus. As followers of Christ, it is our turn to make them come to life around us. “Do not be dismayed by the brokenness in the world” wrote L.R Knost “All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”
Amen and Merry Christmas to all!