December 26, 2009

Christmas Eve

Christmas Bread

Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 2:1-20

What does Christmas smell like to you? Cinnamon, maybe, from cookies made with once-a-year recipes? How about pine needles from the tree set up in the living room? Or the warm, acrid smell of wood smoke from a fire in the fireplace? Maybe special company is coming and the house is full of the smell of wax and silver polish. There is also a special smell to a frosty December night when we are up late, waiting.

Christmas has many smells but I suspect that the smell of baking bread is not commonly considered a Christmas smell. Really, though, it ought to be. There is nothing more Christmassy than bread. But I doubt we think about our light bread or corn bread or biscuits as special Christmas food. Bread is so ordinary.

Except it isn’t, is it? As we gather around the Table here, the bread that we share is a powerful sign of God’s love in our midst. The bread that we break is the body of Christ. Nothing ordinary about that.

There is something about bread that feeds our bodies and our souls. When we speak of breaking bread, we are really talking about fellowship, nourishment for our hearts. Mother Teresa, a modern-day saint if ever there was one, spoke about her work with the desperately poor of Calcutta: "We give dying people bread," she said, "because they hunger and perish not just for bread but also for love. When we hand them bread, we are also giving them love." To be given bread when you are hungry is to be given love. That is what God does with us here, at this Table, on this holy night. God gives us love.

And tonight we turn our hearts to Bethlehem. We remember the little town where Jesus was born. We sing about it in our hymns. We picture it lying still under the starlight. We turn our hearts to Bethlehem, the little town whose name in Hebrew means House of Bread: bet which is house and lechem which is bread.

It was to Bethlehem, of course, that Mary and Joseph made their way. There was no room for them in the inn so they found shelter in the stable. There was no meal prepared and waiting for their arrival so they must have eaten the leftovers from their travels, hard crusts of bread perhaps washed down with milk still warm from a goat or a sheep in the stable. They were poor people. We kind of forget that when we look at lovely paintings of the holy family, clean and glowing, robed in blue and white.

And Bethlehem was a poor town. It was already an old village when Jesus was born. Although it was central in the history of David, in all truth, it was probably an insignificant place to all except those who lived there or had family connections there. It was close to Jerusalem, about five and half or six miles away, but certainly not as well known or important. It was just an ordinary place, nothing special – except in God’s eyes.

In fact, God had spoken through the prophet Micah to signal Bethlehem’s place in human history. It would be the place where the Messiah would be born, this tiny place. This “little clan of Judah” would be the origin of the one to rule the people, the one who would feed the flock, the one who would bring the peace the people hungered for. All that from just a little place.

Isn’t that so often the way God works, taking something small, insignificant, seemingly unimportant and using it to bring salvation and justice to the world? That is just what happened in Bethlehem, the little town whose name means “house of bread.”

Two simple, ordinary words for two simple ordinary things: house and bread. Except maybe not so simple and ordinary. A house is shelter, bread is food. These are the basics of survival; without them we would die. So Bethlehem, house of bread, comes to be that place that gives us what we need for life.

God’s miracle of a Messiah came into the world in that place. As the baby grew inside his mother, God was shaping the whole of human history. As a baker mixes the yeast in the dough, so God put eternal life in fragile flesh. Invisible at first, small and insignificant, growing and developing, coming forth to provide what we most need for life.

And as that baby grew into a child and into a man, he claimed for himself the legacy of his birthplace. He broke the bread and fed the multitudes. He gathered his disciples at the table. And he told a parable about the way God was at work in the world, at work in him. The kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, “is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measure of flour until all of it was leavened.”

And there is God for all of those centuries, kneading, shaping, working the yeast into the dough of the world until finally it began to rise in the womb of a young girl and she brought forth her firstborn son. She would name him Jesus and we would come to know him as the Bread of Life.

The gift of the Christ child, this good news of great joy for all the people, is like the gift of bread to the starving. The Messiah, the Bread of Life, fills our emptiness, answers our deepest hungers, renews and restores us, and gives us strength for the journey.

And as he is bread for us, so we are to be bread for the world. We are to be like loaves in his hands, taken, blessed, broken and multiplied, given in love to feed the hungers of a needy world.

There are many this night who cannot find their way to Bethlehem, who do not know the life giving presence of the one who is the Bread of Life. And there are many others who have no Bethlehem because they lack shelter and food. The one who has given us everything on this holy night calls us to give in return so that this weary world may know the coming of Christ that changes everything, when all will be fed and all will find a place to belong. The one who has given us everything calls us to make every house a Bethlehem, a house of bread, where Christ can be born and find shelter and nourishment. And where we, too, may be shaped by the hand of God into bread for the world, so that all who encounter us may know the glory of God and the peace of Christ just as those first residents of Bethlehem did so many years ago.

Every home a house of bread, every heart a Bethlehem. May it be so. Amen.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith 2009

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