“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy!” (Luke)
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John)
All around us, Christmas is packaged in a certain way, in TV adverts; in the Christmas cookery programmes; in the movies – especially the Bing Crosby ones my granny liked to watch; we have a vision each year of a Dickensian-inspired, snow-decorated, perfect Christmas, which forms the basis for our ideal celebration – laden with hope and expectation. Imagine the scene like a festive Bisto advert: a large, extended family is gathered round a large, perfectly decorated festive dining room table – all politely engaged in civilised conversation, whilst they wait for an enormous and perfectly cooked turkey to be carved by a smiling dad, as a smiling mum tends to everyone’s needs.
The entire clan is respectable, well-spoken. Each one is either doing well at school, making good professional progress in their careers, or living in comfortable retirement. No one, it seems, is emotionally damaged, seriously, ill, or chronically unemployed. All have broad smiles and straight teeth!
But of course, Christmas never happens this way. Christmas Day is usually mild with drizzly rain, rather than snow falling deep and crisp and even. Someone precious may be missing from the family circle; there may be worries about someone’s health or work. Those around the table may be a little overweight; a little eccentric; a bit shy; too talkative. The fact is, that most of us do not qualify as the best and the brightest. We do not live the fantasy lives on which TV adverts and movies are based.
On this Christmas night/ day – let us pay attention to the message of the stable.
Forced by government bureaucracy, Joseph brings his pregnant wife all the way to his hometown of Bethlehem for the sake of a census. Not a single relative with a spare room remains. In fact, there is no accommodation to be found. The birth is immanent; a borrowed animal shed will have to do.
Joseph, meanwhile, tries to get his wits about him. The months since he found out about this disturbing pregnancy – which nearly brought his relationship with Mary to a sudden end – have been hard.
Nor is it a perfect Christmas for Mary. The unease of pregnancy and discomfort of travel give way to the pains of labour. Once her baby is delivered, Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep. Yet this sleep is suddenly broken by the unexpected arrival of shepherds from the hills. These ruffians – dodgy characters, not really approved of by polite society, approach – caps in hand, their eyes wild as they proclaim a story of angels filling the night sky with song. Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath. Falling to their knees, they ask to see the baby. They delight in Mary’s little one, then, as quickly as they came, go off into the night, shouting songs of praise. They are drunk, but not with the wine of this world. Their hearts overflow with heaven’s joy. For they have seen God made real.
Christmas in the barn is a crazy scene; it is far from perfect. The circle around the manger is made up of people with problems. But that is the point! Christmas in the barn is real. The baby is born, wet upon the blankets amidst the straw and dung. Hard-living shepherds hurry to meet him. The small stable becomes a wide enough place to encompass the world, a world of imperfect, anxious and fragile people. People with issues – people like you and me. The gospel makes clear that the perfect Christmas makes room at the manger for imperfect people.
The gospel comes to us as an awkward surprise. A Christmas gift we did not foresee. God is Love. Unconditional, no-strings-attached, Love. Such Love accepts us in our incompleteness, in our imperfection. Jesus, the Christ – who is God in human shape – comes to us in an eminently imperfect, unmanageable way, with all the disruptions of a baby born in a barn and put to bed in an animal trough. God in Christ relates to our little, imperfect selves by becoming smaller, less powerful, more dependent than any of us who are old enough to walk and talk. We long for love, for healing, for light, for wholeness.
The good news is that God is unconditional love. Unconditional love, loves us as we are. The God that we name Love does not require us to be perfect. God asks only that we become real, and allow each other to be real – as real as the events in that Bethlehem stable, as real as divine love. That is the freedom of the real Christmas. Christmas, which is perfectly real.
Tonight/today, we can gather around the manger with people who have problems, like Joseph and Mary; with isolated people judged as imperfect by wider society, such as the Bethlehem shepherds. Here imperfect people; anxious people; broken people; challenged people – real people – find acceptance. This Christmas time, let us rejoice that God is among us, and within us, and around us, encountering, nudging, loving, and transforming us; accepting and healing us.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
Then 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 to others,
And to make music in the heart of the world.
May Christ be born anew in you this Christmas time. Have a blessed Christmas and a peaceful new year. And may the light of God’s love burn within you, and may you shine, in the darkness of this world, to make God’s love real. Amen.