Born in Us Tonight!
This is a night for pageants and pageantry. All over the world, churches are clothed in gold and candlelight; children, and adults too, reenact the Christmas story; some of the most beautiful music in history is sung; there are great cathedrals where thousands gather to watch carefully choreographed processions, and there are small country churches like ours where worshipers come with less formality but no less faithfulness.
And there is a single thread that runs through all our celebrations, and it is this most ancient story of the birth of Jesus. It has been read and reread, told again and again, acted out, displayed, painted, sung, and depicted for thousands of years. All we have to do is hear a phrase or two in order to know what is coming. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” “She brought forth her first born son.” “There were shepherds abiding in the fields.” This is the story we know by heart. It is a story we know in our hearts.
But it is often the case that something so familiar loses a bit of its original meaning, and that may be what has happened to Christmas. This story is not only about a newborn baby. It is about God being born into the world. It is about what the church calls incarnation – God taking on human flesh and living among us as one of us. That is the heart of this story, and if we can see the story with fresh eyes, it may be that we can learn something new about God, and eventually about ourselves. So imagine with me, if you will, how the story might be told if it were happening right now.
A young couple is on the road. His name is Jose, and she is Maria; she is very pregnant, and they are not married. They’re traveling in an old Toyota station wagon, kind of mustard colored, not pretty even when it was new in 1978. Every twenty miles or so, he has to pull over and put water in the radiator. They keep scraping their money together to buy a gallon of gas here or there, driving as carefully as they can in hopes that the gas will get them where they need to go. They are on their way to Raleigh; they have gotten an official looking piece of paper in the mail that tells them, in English and in Spanish, that there is some problem with their work visas and they need to appear in person to register with the government. So they are making this long trip in this old beat-up car in the middle of the night.
And maybe it is the stress of the travel or the worry about the visa or just that it is time, but Maria goes into labor. They are out in the country; they have no idea where the hospital is and even if they found it, they could not afford to seek care. So they try to keep going but the going is hard, and when they see the little lights up ahead, they both breathe a sigh of relief. Here is a town – maybe there will be someone who can help them.
It is a small town, and it is late at night and most of the houses are dark but some still have Christmas trees shining through the windows. And there are lights in the streets, street lights shining with decorations. All throughout the little town, the lights twinkle in the dark streets. Encouraged by that, Jose begins knocking on doors, but most people sleep through it, don’t even hear the sound. And the few who do are afraid to open up to a strange man, badly dressed, obviously poor, speaking Spanish, standing on the doorstep in the middle of the night.
And time is running out. This baby will not wait. So they pull the car around behind the Minute Mart where there is an outdoor water spigot, and he helps her into the back of the car and the baby is born. The water from the outside spigot is very cold, but he tries to warm it a bit in the car so he can wash off the aftermath of birth from his Maria and this new baby who will be called Jesus. And he takes his undershirt and tears it into strips and gives it to her to wrap around the baby so he will be warm and snug. Then they settle down to sleep; they are exhausted.
But soon there is a tapping on the window of the car, and the car is surrounded by a group of bikers wearing their black leather jackets, motorcycle engines still thrumming in the night. They are frightened by the sight of these unexpected visitors.None of them can figure out why the bikers are there, not the bikers or Jose or Maria.
Somehow the bikers just had to come. They saw the light in the car and they came to investigate. So Maria shows them the baby and the sight of that small face, those tiny hands, melts the hearts of those big tough guys. Before they go back to the road, they take out saddlebags with cheese and beef jerky and some bottles of beer. It’s the best they have to offer, and for some unknown reason, they feel they need to give something to this family, to this child.
And then they go roaring off into the night, but when they get together with their buddies later on, they tell the story about that baby, about that mother and father, about the light in that car and in that town,
and they tell how that encounter made them want to give what they had away. They don’t understand it, but they tell the story nonetheless.
This isn’t the way it happened, of course. The first ones to come to visit the child were shepherds, not bikers. The baby was born in a stable, not in the back of an old beat up car; and it was the little town of Bethlehem, not the little town of Atkinson.
But maybe if it were happening today, tonight -- this miraculous birth – maybe it would happen in a place like this. And here is the good news, the good news of great joy. It does happen tonight, and it does happen in a place like this.
It is not enough for us just to remember the birth of the baby Jesus. It is not enough to celebrate with hymns and gifts and family gatherings. If that is all we did, we would miss the point. Christmas is more than the story of a baby born to desperately poor people far from home with no place to stay. It is about God in Christ coming into the world. It is about God in Christ present even now. That is the good news, and we are to respond to this good news by seeking the one who has come seeking us.
But if we are to find this Savior we will need to look in the unlikely places. Remember his own words:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25: 35-36; 40)
The Christ who is born of Mary is present in the world in the faces of the poor and the hungry, the refugee and prisoner, the sick and lonely. And also, I have to believe, in the faces of the rich and the rulers, the powerful and the presidents, the movers and shakers – but sometimes you may have to look a little deeper there in order to see. The Christ who is born of Mary is present in all people. May we be watching for him, making room for him, welcoming and serving and offering ourselves to him.
And, dear friends, because Christ is present in the hearts of all, then the Christ who is born of Mary is also present in us. The Christ who is born of Mary is the Christ who is born of us. As one holy man (Meister Eckhardt) has said: “We are celebrating the feast of the Eternal Birth which God the Father has borne and never ceases to bear in all eternity... But if that birth does not take place in me, what good is it? Everything lies in this, that it should take place in me. What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God [two thousand] years ago and I do not give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?”
As we celebrate God’s wonderful gift to us in Bethlehem, may we also celebrate it in Atkinson, and in all the other places where we are. Our Christ is still Immanuel – God with us. And that is good news of great joy for all people. For unto us, and within us, is born this day, this very day, a savior who is Christ the Lord!
Thanks be to God! Amen.
(c) Martha C. Highsmith