I know Mary lived two thousand years ago, but I have actually seen her. Not in a piece of toast, or in the sun’s reflection on a window, or in the patterns of ridges on a tree trunk. I’ve seen her in flesh and blood. I saw her in the woman who was the custodian of my elementary school in rural North Carolina. Pearly was a steady, faithful and honest woman and, despite her very modest income and living situation, you always had this sense when you were around her that she drew from a strength unlike anything the world had to offer. When my mother said to her one day, “Pearly, you are so good,” Pearly said quickly and straightforwardly: “No, m’am. God is good.” Maybe not ten verses of poetry, but it was her own Magnificat nonetheless—it was her Song of Mary. For in her quiet way, Pearly was always proclaiming the goodness of God.
I saw Mary once when I was sixteen years old and living away from home. It was a particularly hard day; I felt lonely and depressed. And so, true to my religious upbringing, I spent the afternoon searching the Bible for some words of hope. But, to be honest, the words I read on those pages couldn’t all by themselves break through the isolation I felt. So I went for a walk, wandering around the neighborhood dejected and in a daze. Suddenly a beautiful African American boy about four years old came out of a Laundromat and stood right in front of me. He only said three words, but they were powerful ones: “I love you.” I was jolted out of my isolation; it was as if something in me jumped in response to his voice and to those words he said. He was only there a moment, because his mother called to him to come back into the Laundromat and he went. But for the split moment he looked at me, that child was Mary—bearing witness to the power of love, faithfulness, and hope in the very midst of my darkness.
I see Mary in the lives of a couple who have adopted many children who need special care. In fact, these are children who might be seen as marginalized by our society—some have undergone cardiac surgery, several have Down’s syndrome, and others come from emotionally troubled backgrounds. Yet in the loving hands of this family, they are brought from the margins to the center, they are lifted up, and they are filled with good things. The reversal that takes place via this family just shouts “kingdom of God.” And I see Mary in them—bringing good news to those who are oppressed, birthing the kingdom of God in real and concrete ways.
Christmas is a time when we recognize that God is born into the unrefined grittiness of life, sometimes beautiful and sometimes violent. Mary, a teenage girl living in Herod's reign, will understand. She gave birth to God in her way, as might we in ours.
We may or may not identify ourselves as Christian; the message of God's birth into grittiness belongs to us all. Jesus, after all, was Jewish not Christian.
Giving Birth to God
What does it mean to say that God is born? It doesn't mean that God was absent from the world until Jesus was born in Nazareth, but it does mean that that God enters human history in the particulars of life and in light of the historical situations of those particulars.
God was born in Nazareth in one way and is born in Ghana in still another and in Venezuela in still another. And God is born in different ways relative to different circumstances. As John Cobb so often says, "God is historical."
This birth takes two forms on God's side of things. It is (1) a sharing in the concrete experiences of whatever any person is feeling or undergoing in the moment at hand. This sharing is communal as well as individual. God feels the feelings of communities of people, just as they feel the feelings of one another. The birth is also (2) an inwardly felt lure toward healing and wholeness for individuals and communities relative to those circumstances. This lure takes the form of healing and energizing responsibilities for responding to the circumstances in ways that are good for the people and good for others.
Taken together, these two point to what Sheri Kling calls the whole-making nearness of God. God is born anew, again and again, everywhere at once, all the time. But the birth is not truly complete until and unless we respond to the lure. In this sense we give birth to God, not by creating God but by fulfilling God's desire to be fully incarnate in the world.
It is very important to recognize that God is born into a world that is far more earthy and gravelly, more complicated and unrefined, than the sanitized image of life we see in creches. Make no mistake, there is a place in life for images of sanitized perfection. At their best, these images remind us of the same hope we feel when we fall in love for the first time and sense the possibility of a ‘rightness’ in the world. There is a place in life for pure ideals. For a sense of a harmony of harmonies that includes but transcends tragedy. For open and relational (process) thinkers like me, this harmony of harmonies is part of what we mean by God. Another name for it is Peace.
But there is also a place in life for honesty and immersion in the thickness of ordinary, bodily life. This is the meaning of incarnation. It means that we find God in the thickness, in the messiness. God in the smells of freshly baked bread and, yes, God in the smells of death. If we are blessed, we can respond to both with love, which is itself gritty. See her The Grittiness of Love.
There is also a place for recognizing that different people’s experiences of ordinary life are themselves different. For some people, ordinary life is suburban, temperature-controlled, comfortable, and relatively protected from physical abuse. For others it is hard and dangerous, frightening and humiliating.
God is born into these realities in different ways. God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Jesus’ birth is an invitation for all of us, whether or not we are Christian, to find God in the grittiness, each in a way appropriate to our circumstances, in whatever mangers are available to us.
- Jay McDaniel, Dec. 24, 2020
Away in a Real Manger
"Downstairs from the living quarters, a traditional Palestinian house - like the one where Jesus was likely born - was a "manger" where animals would be gathered at night. When the angel tells the shepherds, "This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." (Luke 2:12) The shepherds would have gone looking for a room like this."
'Mary was a teenaged girl, no older than a modern-day high school student. That was the marriageable age and there is nothing in the Gospels of Luke or Matthew which indicate she was an exception. Joseph was a builder (not a carpenter as we understand the term) and likely about 10 years older than Mary. The construction trades may have connected Joseph in way to the reign of Herod the Great and his sons, who were prodigious builders of entire cities, forts, ports, roads and the temple in Jerusalem. They weren't so much rulers as high-powered developers with connections to the Roman administration. Herod's ambitious building projects absorbed all the strong-backed, grunt labour Israel could muster.'
Michael Swan, Away in a Real Manger, The Catholic Register, Dec. 21, 2014
Now for a good word for the innkeeper
The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson United Church of Canada
We have all heard these words “no room in the inn,” Christmas after Christmas. We have had generations of sermons that have emphasized the surface meaning of the story. We have been called upon to open our closed hearts, to prepare room for the heart of love. We have been asked to birth a generous spirit. Of course, there is truth to this metaphor. It is true that at this time of the year our hearts are touched and we do become more inclusive and welcoming of the stranger. All good stuff from those famous lines.
However, there are more life shattering meanings to this story of inns, births, shepherds and messengers. When we dig deeper into the story, to move it from sentimental images, Christmas can be an explosive season. For there is a disruptive element to this birthing. For birthing redefines and transforms our world. Nothing remains the same.
As we gather this evening to rehearse, retell, and re-sing the formative story of our faith, let us take a little time to probe the story for its radical point of view. This is not simply a narrative of past events; it is a story that speaks of God’s presence with us, in this world of ours. The story begins with a birth that speaks of the “scandal of particularity.”
God’s love comes crashing into reality, and in this story, history is a profoundly moral story in which each of us, however small, has a part to play well or badly. The story tells us we are not left alone in an empty universe, for the whole creation resounds with the music of God. All existence sings songs of joy. It is a birthing unlike other births, for it leads to the overturning of the status quo, a crucifixion, and a resurrection. Through this story we can interpret our own struggles, victories, sufferings, and hope.
So let us return to the story and examine all the characters, for they give us a fuller understanding of Luke’s intentions. He is reminding us of the continuous theme of the Bible - hosting and carnality.
We are invited to jump into life, to taste it, to have the enjoyment of our bodies. The God we celebrate loves the flesh and blood of life, and it is in this flesh and blood that we encounter deep spirituality. True spirituality takes us deeper into our world, to love it and move it to more beauty. Hosting is about nitty-gritty reality, hosting others with our hearts pounding with expectation.
When we wander through this Christmas story and reread it in its historical context, we see the writers were using stories of great births in our messy history. It is a story about hosting and that can help us see ourselves as natural hosts.
However, this quality needs to be nurtured, so our hearts leap with joy, for like Mary we carry God in our bodies. This story reminds us that in our messy and incomplete world we birth the hope within the world.... born this night ... incarnated with the promise of a new reality of healing.
The different characters remind us how serious and rewarding hosting is. They remind us that it takes time to welcome a different reality: guests who present themselves without our invitation. For hospitality brings its burdens and inconveniences.
For there is Joseph, as Leonard Cohen put it, some Joseph slouching toward Bethlehem. Our story is full of unhappy campers - Joseph being one. He had to come to terms with the demand placed on him. When we read behind the lines, we see how the Gospel writers make Joseph every man. He did not ask for this. He is dishonored, his family dishonored; yet God is asking him to provide blanket protection - to host this discredited woman.
The line that says they had to find an inn tells us not all is right with this situation. Normally, the hospitality rule requires kinsfolk to care for the traveler. The story says it is his hometown, so there would have been some family there to take them in. Yet here they are at the inn.
Here comes that misunderstood innkeeper - note how one translation says there was no space for them. When read this way we see an innkeeper who does his best to provide shelter from the storm. Rather than being hard-hearted, the innkeeper was sensitive to all his guests. Inns in that time were not even up to the standard of those motels that charge by the hour. What you had was one big room full of those who had no honor. To have Mary in such a place would make her unclean and Joseph dishonored. Things that would cause them problems and could lead to exclusion from their community. Then, those men would be double unclean, not only from their professions of solders and shepherds, but because Mary giving birth in their space would make them unclean. For those who had no home their burden would have been increased.
So the innkeeper is a double sign of hospitality. He cared for the needs of all - Mary and those who slept in the inn. He had compassion and provided a warm place - the stable. This metaphor suggest that God’s home is in the muck and smell of the stable - the world. There the dishonored and shameful are made whole. Earthiness is the place where we practice hospitality.
Then the shepherds - they were not highly honored - they were the cowboys of their time - hanging out in all the wrong places. So for them to be the honored witnesses is to reinforce the idea that God hosts this world in all its brokenness and seeks to bring healing. From the edge of society comes the announcement of here is a King - not your normal source of hosting life.
The stories remind us that hosting and carnality are the reasons for the season. For hosting is healing - binding together our wounds and connecting our webs of relatedness so we can experience wholeness. The storyteller drives home this point - if we are open, we too can hear the angel voices - see the glory of God in everyday events.
We gather at the table to be hosted by God, to rehearse the joy of hospitality. This is a table where all are welcome, a place to find healing and forgiveness. And after tasting the bread and wine of God, we go to host this world of ours. Having claimed our inner sense of beauty we go out to create more beauty in our world. We birth a new way of being - we go out singing and embracing a way of life that is inclusive, caring, sharing of burdens. Affirm the light of God that lights up this dark night of our soul - remember once again - God is born in us tonight.
A Christmas Eve Meditation
by Dr. Bruce Epperly
It was just a few days before Christmas when they came to the church door. Joseph and Diane. A couple down on their luck. To prove he was worthy of our church’s support, Joseph told me their story. He had been a carpenter but was between jobs. They had just been told to leave the Hyannis boarding house where they were staying, and because Joseph and Diane’s father were at odds with one another, they couldn’t return home to Falmouth. They’d struggled with addiction and were now living sober one day at a time.
Those days before Christmas are hectic for pastors, and I really didn’t need one more thing to do, but his name was Joseph and it was Christmas! And Diane was pregnant!
We all love Christmas stories – the expectant parents, the angelic choir, the magi from the East, the star in the sky, and the soft cry of a newborn. This is the stuff of Hallmark movies, creches, and carols.
And, yet, that first Christmas was anything but tranquil or serene. In fact, it was messy and chaotic. Have you ever been in a stable? Not very romantic – smelly, lots of particulates in the air, and watch where you step. And Mary and Joseph were a bit like Joseph and Diane, working people, who couldn’t find a room, traveling to Bethlehem not because they wanted to – but because they had to – Caesar, the king whose forces occupied the land with spear and sword needed taxes to support his building projects and the troops that occupied Judea. Taxation without representation, and Joseph and the caravan of pilgrims to Bethlehem were not happy travelers.
Joseph and Diane, and Mary and Joseph – like countless persons unable to find lodging – just wanted a safe and warm place to sleep, a place to give birth, and then the labor pains came.
The baby comes, angels sing, and shepherds, coming from the graveyard shift, working at minimum wage, ready to worship, filled with hope that this baby will change their lives for the better. On that midnight clear, hope was in the air – a baby, a child who will usher in a new world, the child of God. God with us, suffering and rejoicing with us, bringing healing to cells, souls, and political systems.
Then, the scene shifts at least in our pageants, foreigners from the East, magi – astronomers and astrologers from another religion – come with gifts. The God of Bethlehem’s child is the God of every culture, revealed wherever there is love by whatever faith it is affirmed. But Mary and Joseph’s joy is short-lived. Joseph has a dream, an angel says “Run for your life. The baby is in danger. Go to Egypt till you receive a sign that everything’s safe.” And, so the holy family, with little more than their clothes and a few morsels of food join a pilgrim caravan, asylum seekers, fleeing the dangers of their homeland. Uncertain of the future, like the 70 million refugees in Africa, from Syria, in Bangladesh, Yemen, and at our nation’s borderlands – Mary and Joseph are just trying find safety and a better life for their child.
And, yet, in the darkness, the light shines. Whether among refugees, persons burrowing at home due to the pandemic, or in the chaos of national politics. The everlasting light that guides all our journeys.
On Christmas this year, we hear the still, still, songs of the angels. We see the light of a distant star, and look for the conjunction of planets, to guide our steps toward a better world, where we are better people. We look in the faces of Joseph and Diane, Maria and Jose, and their wee babies, Yeshua, Jesus, and see in each face the Christ-child.
Tonight, listen for the angels…listen for the voice of God within your loving words and welcoming smiles…tonight let the better angels guide your steps… let us be God’s messengers of peace and beauty as well…the Christ-child is being born in us, in the child hidden in every adult, and Jesus looks at us through eyes of every infant.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today We hear the Christmas angels, their great glad tidings tell Oh come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.
Now the Work of Christmas Begins
By Howard Thurman
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.