There is so much about this story that tugs at our hearts: the animals in the stable, the shepherds carrying lambs, the new mother, the father standing watch, and, in the center of it all, a baby. It is a scene written in our memories even though we were not there to witness it when it happened. We have seen it on Christmas cards, in museums with famous paintings, on our lawns and in manger scenes on the mantel so much that it seems as though we must have been present.
But is it not just a picture. It is also music. Of course, it is music in the hymns and Christmas carols that we sing, but especially this night, it is somehow the music of the angels. And their song is a powerful and precious part of Christmas because it speaks to some of our deepest hopes. “Peace on earth,” they sing, and “good will from God” and isn’t that what we want? God’s good will -- the certain presence among us fulfilling all those ancient promises so that the world becomes the way it was at the beginning when there was peace everywhere. That is what the angels sing.
But listen carefully to their music. What they are singing is not about some future time. They are singing about the here and now. When this child comes among us, then there is peace. That is why the heavens open and the music pours down on us. In the coming of the baby, everything that God has ever promised is here and now. Except that it doesn’t exactly seem like that, does it? The world is filled with wars, big and small. There is famine and hunger and financial disaster. Many people are losing their jobs, and those who have them can barely get by. And it is not just the world around us; sometimes there is no peace in our homes, no peace in our hearts. So what do we make of this song that the angels sing, these words from on high proclaiming the reality of God’s presence in the world? What do we make of them? And what does God call us to do to make this Christmas promise a reality?
Let me tell you a little story about an ancient holy man, a saint, known as Kevin. He lived in Ireland 1500 years ago and he was a good and gentle soul. There are many stories of his kind and loving ways. One of those stories tells of a day when he was praying with his arms lifted out. He prayed and prayed, deep in prayer for a long time -- long enough for a bird to come and make a nest in his hand and lay an egg. And as the story goes, Kevin remained with his hand held out until the egg hatched.
It’s a fanciful story, a legend hard to believe I suppose, except here’s the truth of it. The same thing can happen to us. The same thing does happen to us.
Every time we reach out to God, every time we open our hearts, God puts the precious gift of life and love and peace in our hands. And once we hold it, then it is up to us, like Kevin, to protect and nurture it, to watch and wait, to be gentle and patient and to persevere. And it is ironic, I suppose, that the almighty, all powerful God, creator of the universe, ruler of all that is, that this God of awe and might gives us a gift that somehow looks so small and fragile.
Like the gift we receive here tonight. That gift looks like a small piece of bread that we take from each other—a little ordinary insignificant piece of bread -- but that bread has the power of the crucifixion and the resurrection in it, a power that overcomes death and promises eternal life. And then there is the gift that looks like a thimbleful of juice, a tiny little sip, barely enough to taste, but that gift has the life-giving power and healing strength of the blood of Jesus and we taste it and it is a transfusion of love that saves our souls. But above all, on this night, there is the small and fragile gift from God that is a baby. And maybe that is the most fragile of all, because a baby is one who requires our care and protection to grow into life. It is fragile, and it is astonishing, because Jesus, God’s gift to the world, is given to us as one of us. It is what the church calls the incarnation which one preacher describes as “nothing less than Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed.” (Frederick Buechner)
We have a new baby in our family this Christmas, born on December 20. It is easy to forget how little a newborn is, how tiny and fragile. It is easy to take for granted the miracle of new life -- until you hold it in your hands. All life is a gift from God, and on this night, and when we hold a new babe, we are reminded of how amazing that gift is.
But God’s ultimate Christmas gift is kind of surprise, isn’t it? Think about it: God does maybe the last thing on earth that we would expect, coming among us as one who is fragile, helpless, defenseless and dependent. It was certainly not what people wanted two thousand years ago. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God’s people were looking for a savior -- someone powerful and strong, someone who would lead an army to defeat those who oppressed God’s people. They were looking for someone who could wage the kind of war that would restore the land to them, reclaim their power, take over the government. That’s what they wanted, and it’s not so different from what we want, really. We want God to solve our problems, fix what is wrong, take care of us. That’s the kind of gift we want, and instead we get a gift that we have to take care of. That is what happens tonight. We open our hearts, and the gift of life and love is given to us all over again, but it is not always what we expect. In my life, in your life, this gift may seem small and insignificant, whatever it is that God has given. But it demands a response from us, it calls us to care. Our task is to hold our gift gently, to wait and watch with patience and faith as it opens in our midst, to do all we can to make that life and growth possible. The gift is like a newborn baby. The gift is a newborn baby.
When Jesus was born, people wanted peace on earth, and God’s gift to them was one called the Prince of Peace. The angels knew it first and they announced it from the heavens: “Peace on earth.” The shepherds heard and believed and told what they had seen and learned. And some who found this fragile gift within their reach held it with care and patience, watched over it, and nurtured and helped it grow. But others ignored what they had been given and went on their way, leaving God’s great gift shattered and broken and ruined, crushed and abandoned.
That is the way it was then when the angels first sang, and it is still that way now, because we, too, want peace; we, too, listen for heavenly reassurance; and we, too, have the gift within our reach. That gift of peace, of the Prince of Peace, is a reality in God’s kingdom. It may seem that it is not fully realized in our world, especially in these days of war and bankruptcy and bailouts. But on this night of nights, this holy night, the gift is revealed to us and we know that all is possible, that God’s promise is kept, here and now, as it was in Bethlehem. And we are called to cradle God’s great gift in our hands, not to lose heart, not to give up, not to go our own way and drop what we have been given. We are called to hold and protect it, to wait, to watch, and keep faith because it will come to fullness in time. At Christmas, the angels sing to us, and we, like the shepherds, know the promise of peace born as a baby, and like it was for them, he is give to us to hold in our hearts.
As a bird grows in the egg, as a baby grows in the womb, so peace grows in our world through the great gift of Jesus Christ. May we be those who hold it and protect it while we watch and pray.
(c) Martha C. Highsmith