Sermon for Christmas Day, Friday, December 25 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
It is so familiar, this reading, and so beloved, Luke’s story of the manger and the shepherds. It is the basis for so many paintings and so many Nativity scenes—in most of which the stable looks strangely cozy and somehow immaculately clean, and everyone is calm and happy and nicely-dressed. It is so familiar that we are at risk of forgetting what a very strange story this really is; and we cannot forget that, because it is in the strangeness of this story that the real grace lies.
It begins with massive social confusion, this bizarre census which apparently requires everyone, for some reason, to go back to their ancestral home towns to register for taxation. The picture is an extraordinary one, a whole society on the move under imperial order, everyone uprooted, confused, travelling from place to place all at the same time. And, evidently, a large number of people deciding to claim Bethlehem as their ancestral village. So when a stubborn pregnant teenage girl, and the man who may or may not be the father of her child, arrive in town, there is no room for them. Why should there be? They are out on the edge of the story, these ones, tossed around by the great movements of armies and politicians, ignored and pushed aside, the little ones for whom there is no place, no time.
Imagine this girl, in a barn, far away from home, the baby born there, in blood and pain, her husband, in his own stubborn loyalty, the only one to care for them. And it is here, it is precisely here, in this marginal, dirty, unimportant place, that God has chosen to be born, the child of these frightened children. It is here, in this place, that perfect love comes to us in perfect vulnerability, at night, in the midst of confusion and fear, a baby in a feed trough, a refugee infant in need of warmth and nurture, a cry for care.
Our imagination resists this. We want to think that it was nicer, somehow, that the cozy pictures are somehow true, that it was a miraculously clean feed trough, that this girl gave birth without getting her clothes dirty. The painting which is reproduced on your bulletin cover—which, by the way, I do love, and think is a work of great beauty—reflects a medieval legend in which midwives somehow happened to arrive just at the right moment, to deliver and wash the child, to comfort the mother. We want it to be like that partly out of kindness, out of a deeply good wish that the world should be kind. We do not want the girl and her husband to have been ignored and afraid, we do not want the child to had this lonely birth. But the story tells us that it was that way, that God chose for it to be that way, that this is how it had to be.
For this is the most astonishing good news of all; that God chose to come, not as a great power in the world of powers, but as weakness in the small world of love. It is in this place, and it could only be in this place, that the God who would be born and die for the love of us is made known. Transforming human flesh and human story, and making it, once and for all, a story in which the weakest, the poorest, the most rejected, are the very centre of all meaning. Every refugee, every poor traveller without a home, every outcast pregnant girl, every person for whom there is no room, no place, no time in this world. Our own loneliness, our own abandonment, our own fears in the dark, hallowed by the God who has gone there before us.
And all our broken, lonely, longing lives, all the joys and sorrows of this flesh, all human need and hunger and love, are taken up into the life of God and made holy things. It is always true, it has always been true, but we know it best, perhaps, when we are in that marginal place. God does not come to us because we are good or nice. God comes to the lost children in the barn, to the homeless and the wandering, to the men working in the cold and the dark all night alone, to those who cannot be clean or nice or good. To us, to all of us, our frail bodies and our yearning hearts. God comes as a needy child to all God’s needy children, to tell us that we are loved.
And that, like the shepherds, we are called—summoned to get out into the city and find the child, in an unexpected place. To tell us that we are called to care for the infant God in one another, in the bodies and souls, the hopes and longings, of our fellow creatures, in all the cramped and lonely and forgotten places of the world and of our selves.
For if there are to be midwives in this story after all, they must be us. There is no one else. We must go into the broken places of the world and the broken places of ourselves, and find the one who is being born there, who is ever being born. The light which is always breaking in, breaking into all the dark and scary and unfamiliar places. Receive that light into your arms, help it into the world. The God who is always being born invites you, invites us, to be the ones who help and hold that light. Cradle the child in the ones around you, the ones who are sad and sorry and reaching for kindness. Cradle the child in your own longing selves, the hope that persists, the love that will not let you go, the vision of brightness.
For God is with us, our very blood and bone, and all that we are, all that is truly human within us, is filled with light. And the song comes to us on the dark hills of our waiting, and all our nights and all our mornings are made holy with this glory.