Christmas Eve 2013
He was called son of god and savior during his lifetime—and why not–he commanded the greatest empire in the world.
His name was Octavius but took on the title Augustus.
He was a remarkable administrator and leader.
Saint Luke starts the Christmas story with Augustus because his gospel is about big things, about the salvation of the whole world, about how God is manifesting himself in Jesus in order to inaugurate the peaceable kingdom of God that one day will bring peace and harmony to every nation.
Luke starts in the palace and then journeys to a cave. It seems to end on a cross, but then there is an empty tomb and appearances of the Risen Christ and in just a few decades the story is back in Rome.
A friend and I made the 6 mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the summer of 1973 right before the Yom Kippur War when the Israelis still occupied Bethlehem.
Originally built in AD 339 the Church of the Nativity has a very low entrance called the Door of Humility that you have to bend over to enter. Underneath the basilica there are steps down to a grotto around a big rock on which it is said Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Imagine all the screaming and blood of that birth!
No doctors, midwives, NPs, RNs, LPNs, NAs–just a woman and her husband… and their God.
The time comes, so Joseph catches the baby, wipes him off, wraps him up, and hands him back to Mary. Utterly ordinary–it’s happened billions of times.
On his first night Mary puts him in a feeding trough so she can get some rest. On his last night Jesus offers himself for spiritual food, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body.”
Bethlehem is rightly named for in Hebrew it means “House of Bread”.
My experience of the Church of the Nativity, however, was an unpleasant one. As a recent college graduate who majored in religion I expected there to be a palpable sense of mystery and awe in that cave—people struck dumb as they contemplate God becoming a human being in order to free us from ourselves.
What I got, though, was a bus load of tourists from a fundamentalist church in Indiana. They were noisy Americans with no sense that some things are best received in silence.
Their Billy Graham wannabe preacher talked about “gee-sus”, and then they sang a Christmas carol.
I was no longer in Bethlehem, but a tacky biblical theme park.
I was equally disappointed when later I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem—since the 4th century named the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
The Indiana crowd wasn’t there but there were lots of panhandlers intruding on your solitude by giving you an unsolicited guided tour for free—free until of course the tour was over and a fee was demanded.
The dark church felt like a holy space that had been invaded by a thousand Wal-Mart greeters.
I wanted something special, but all I got was ordinary people being themselves.
Mary and Joseph got the ordinary too.
The shepherds in the fields get the angelic messengers singing in the sky, but Mary and Joseph only have themselves. It would have been a good night for a couple of angels.
Many of us know the ache of absence of those who have been angels in our lives but are no longer.
Preacher Fred Craddock was right when he said “Life is often an angel short.”
Mary, Joseph, and shepherds wonder what will become of this manger child.
The modern historian tells us who Jesus was:
Jesus was a Jew born in a tiny village in the backwater of Galilee in the reign of Caesar Augustus. Around age 30 he gathered together a small band of working class disciples, fishermen and the like, along with the poor and sick, plus a few women.
He preached sermons and healed the sick, but then he tried some symbolic acts of defiance of the Powers that Be: he rides a donkey into Jerusalem at Passover in a fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy and then drives out the moneychangers from the Temple.
The religious and political leaders come together and have the empire put him to death as a failed Messiah at the age of 33.
Yet we are here tonight because we know the historian uses the wrong tense. The central question is not “who WAS Jesus”, but “who IS Jesus?”
Who is Jesus here and now?
The Ancient Church believed Jesus is too complex for just one worship service at Christmas, so they said on Christmas day there are to be three services—one for each of Jesus’ three births.
One service celebrates the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph in first century Palestine.
+We think 2000 years is a long time ago, yet most of us have known someone who lived to be a hundred. Just put 20 centenarians end to end and you’re back in that cave.
+Compared with our 9 billion years old universe, 2000 years is a mere whisper of a millionth of a second. Jesus was just born last evening and died and rose from the dead last night.
A second service celebrates the eternal birth of the Word in the heart of the Father. John’s Gospel tells us: “No one has seen God…. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made him known. John 1:18
+The Mystery of the Holy Trinity is a cosmic mystery of the Divine Love— brighter and darker than we could ever imagine, yet here for us.
The third worship service celebrates the birth of Jesus in the hearts of the faithful.
+Into your heart and mine Christ is born, giving us the power to escape the tyranny of the voice in the head with its ceaseless worry about Me and Mine, so we can find our lives living for others in the here and now. _________________________________________________________
Caesar Augustus died in the year 14 and was never heard from again, but the power of empire continues through the ages and now resides, among other places, in Washington and Wall Street; and now apparently in the computers of the NSA.
We are so caught in the Matrix of the Powers that Be we hardly notice that we’ve turned our daily living into a worthiness contest that we can never win. Then one day, if we’re lucky, we realize life isn’t a competition, but a dance and Jesus is the Lord of the Dance.
As Saint Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
God for us is the Creator; God with us is Jesus Christ; God within us is the Holy Spirit. Our negative thinking about past and future evaporates like the dew on a hot day when we awaken to the Sacrament of the Present Moment–which is the peace of God.
It’s been 40 years since I was in Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, now in Palestinian hands, is still filled with ordinary people, like those tacky tourists and that arrogant, judgmental college student.
It turns out that Jesus invites only ordinary people to receive his inner birth.
Maybe tonight we can dare to be ordinary to let Christ join our humanity so we might receive the gift of his divinity.
Maybe tonight you too are feeling an angel short, but that’s all right, for you have a savior who is Christ the Lord and that’s enough for those who believe.
Come all ye faithful….Come, let us adore him…
…and leave everything else to the mercy and peace of God.