In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a normal year, I find myself in late November and early December reminding people that it is Advent, the season of the heart’s preparation for the wonder of Christmas. It is not yet time for Christmas. This year, we all felt a special eagerness to fill the darkness with Christmas lights. People started as soon as possible. There was an early rush for Christmas trees. By the time many of us were looking for trees, most of them were already lit up in our neighbors homes. People, people everywhere, needed Christmas, as soon as possible this year. What the need is that Christmas touches is worth talking about. It’s something we may be able to see and understand that we haven’t been able to in better times.
To the best of our knowledge, Christians began formally celebrating Christmas in the early 300s. We don’t really know the exact date Jesus was born. We don’t know that for the vast majority of ancient people, because ancient people didn’t tend to record such things. But Christians soon felt the need to celebrate Christ’s birth even though they did not know when that was so they just had to pick a day. I wonder how that conversation went and how the thirty some million Christians of the time came to agree on when to celebrate it. Who was it that said, “I have an idea, let’s pick the coldest darkest day of the year for Jesus’ Birthday!” Were all the other days of the year already taken? Did Jesus not rank high enough to have one of those long temperate days of July? People agreed that it was fitting that when light is scarcest and darkness is all around, when what you want most is something to warm your heart because it is just cold for as far as you can see, when you are most in touch with your own need, that is exactly when to celebrate what Jesus means to us and our world.
Why? Choosing this day was an act of defiance by our ancestors. Christmas is a holy day of stubborn protest. It opposes the darkness with the light of the Christ child. In the powerful words of the Gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). Driven by the need of their own hearts, people all over the world in 2020 are lighting up the darkness. Billions of acts of protest. That protest is deep and solid. It is deep and solid because it has its roots in the human heart itself. Christmas has its own truth and it is a truth that human hearts recognize. Yes it is a truth about Jesus, but that same truth about Jesus is also a claim about the universe itself. The source of the powerful allure of Christmas is its truth and in this coldest, darkest time of year, even frosty, insensitive, human hearts thaw a bit because of the strange warmth supplied by the Christ child.
The real darkness in the world doesn’t have its source in our planet’s steady relationship with the sun. It has more to do with how we humans too easily come to see the world as primarily colored by darkness. I hardly ever go a day without hearing human life forcefully explained as a constant struggle for dominance, where survival is driven by Darwinian competition against one another, as if that explains everything that matters. It justifies brutality and cruelty by claiming that such things are just part of the dog eat dog natural order of things. Those same accounts, however, have so little to say about the wellsprings of kindness and care in our world and why that sort of love persists so stubbornly despite all. Isn’t the fact that love persists, nevertheless, in spite of all, in need of explanation? Isn’t that the more central point about life? At least that is what it looks like from the perspective of Christmas.
Mary and Joseph make their journey from Nazareth south to Bethlehem. It wasn’t their idea to go. They had to go because the Roman governor had required a census of their occupied territory and they needed to go to Bethlehem to be registered with their occupiers. It wasn’t Mary and Joseph’s idea and Rome didn’t care that Mary was nearly at the term of her pregnancy. When we meet Mary and Joseph, life is just happening to them and they are struggling to cope. When they arrive at Bethlehem there is no one to greet them; they have no place to stay, not even at an Inn. What failures they must have felt like as parents. They were grateful to have anywhere to sleep, but their child, Jesus, was born with the animals. That makes for a cute manger scene, but we should not forget its initial shame. Mary and Joseph, like all parents, if they had any choice whatsoever, wanted their infant’s first experience to be quite a bit better than what the rest of us judge to be only good enough for animals.
What we remember about this story is not this couple’s failures. We don’t remember their shame. No we remember their story as one of great joy. Because we know that they were not nearly as alone as they must have felt they were; we know that they were not nearly as uncared for as they felt they were; we know that what appeared to be failure and loss was, in fact, the cause of great triumph, celebration, and joy. It was because in the midst of all that, or in spite of all that, in the birth of their son, God was working out God’s purposes as God does ever so steadily in every century and place, even when we don’t see it at all because our eyes only see ourselves and what we’ve been taught to see.
This Christmas story is a story of the immense love at the heart of the universe revealing itself to us in the human flesh of Jesus. In this time of struggle for survival, as we struggle as individuals as families, and as institutions, what will be most remembered as the reason we survived was that we found a kindness and care for one another stronger than the forces of competition and despair. The light is always more compelling than the darkness, especially as the light makes itself visible in lives.
The promoters of darkness, however, always celebrate their manufactured strength and only see weakness in love. What is there to fear about the Christmas baby? But their posturing is really a poverty stricken form of power fearful of its own scarcity. The love that is the source of the universe, the love revealed in the Christmas manger, is what is infinite and secure. It is what true strength looks like. How do we know that? Well, it is the kind of thing that the more of it you give away, the more of it you have. This kind of love that is never scarce. Jesus himself explained that you could give all the love you have away … even to your enemy and you would discover that you only had more love because of it. That is a massive clue that radiating out of the center of the universe is the very love that created it in the first place.
No matter how powerful it is, for the vast majority of us, however, for real love to reach us, for it to sink down into our hearts and minds, it has to be visible. It has to be something we can see. Love to us looks like someone looking back at us. That’s who we are. Love has to find us where we are in a way that we can understand and feel. Christmas is really about a very distinctive view of God’s visibility in Jesus and is a celebration, first of all, of that God. In the words of a famous Christmas hymn, what we celebrate today/tonight/this evening is how “veiled in flesh, the Godhead see.” We “hail the incarnate deity.” To be a Christian is to grab onto that baby Jesus as someone we can love, but then in holding him, that baby grows, and we discover somehow that we are being held, and we discover that at the very core of life is a divine kindness that can be known that carries us along not only just in the darkest days of winter, but every day without end.
If that isn’t your experience right now, what is it that stands between you and the love of Jesus? If you can, name it, bring it out of the darkness into the light of Christ and the power of his infinite love. Whatever negative judgments we may feel entitled to make about most anything these days, Christmas shows that things are never so bad that it is time to give up on love. With Christmas as its beating heart, Christianity is a religion with joy at its center, and this Christianity gives us a world where the grace, kindness, and love of our Creator continue to shine no matter how dark it may become. One of the things to take away from this Christmas celebration is the knowledge that each one of us ventures out into the world with more resources than we know we have. If this seems true to you, ask yourself if your heart knows that about you? If it does not, tell it that Christ is born this day and that is a great gift for it to receive with joy. So think about this message, make it part of yourself, receive the kind of love where the more you give away the more you have; the kind of love that is never scarce because its source is infinite and visible.
Finally, the Christmas story can all seem too good to be true, too wonderful to be believed, but isn’t that the case with everything that matters most to us? If you allow it to work on your heart, I suspect that you will find divine love being given to you through the very human flesh that God made his own in Jesus of Nazareth. The same love that motivated God to take on flesh and blood in Christ also led God to make you and everything else. I also suspect, if you let yourself look at the manger long enough, you’ll see the baby Jesus look back at you and at least part of you will say that this generous love indeed is what the Creator is like. This love is the root of all things. You’ll see that, in spite of so much that is said, this is the way things ultimately are. This is the truth that matters. This why we protest lighting lights in the darkness.
Let Christmas take up residence in your homes, in your hearts, and in your beliefs. Because you realize that God loved you enough to become like you, you may love him enough to become like him. May not only the daily tasks of celebration occupy your time, but may you always wonder at the marvel that is the truth of Christmas, where infinite love is not something we need to generate or make, but comes to us in a form that every one of us can understand, even if it means bowing with the animals before a manger looking into the eyes of an infant who is always more than what we see or imagine.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Kolbet