A meditation on The Nativity of our Lord--Proper II. Appropriate to the day's celebration, there was also a baptism at this service.
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the highest. The heavens light up, an angel choir sings of peace. Shepherds run from the fields into town. A Savior is born, and the whole world rejoices!
Many of us may be familiar with these images, and have probably had them embellished with stories of various Christmases throughout history or our own lifetimes. There is the story of the Christmas truce of 1914, where German and British soldiers had an unofficial ceasefire at many points along their fighting lines on Christmas Eve, and in some cases exchanged gifts or greetings with one another. There is the tradition of providing gifts and bringing food, clothing, and the like for people who cannot afford that on their own. There is the story of Christmas being celebrated in India by peoples of many other faiths along with their Christian neighbors. There is today’s story of celebrating Christmas with a baptism—and of hearing those promises of baptism as we remember Christ’s birth. There are probably many more stories you could tell as well from your own past and traditions.
How wonderful to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World, Prince of Peace, in this way. I sincerely mean that. I think it is amazing that across cultures and times and spaces, we have taken the initiative to celebrate the coming of Jesus with acts of kindness and peace and promise. There is something in this holiday that tends to inspire us to want to be better than we are the rest of the year, and it is more than just the idea that Santa’s coming and you have to behave. For those of us that Santa no longer visits, there is still that desire to be better as well.
Perhaps it’s that this very real, very tiny baby actually appears. God’s promise to never forget God’s people is kept in this moment when Jesus, the Incarnation, appears for the first time here on earth. Isaiah’s proclamations ring true—this is a time when salvation comes, reward with him and recompense before him. The redeemed are not forsaken. It is a gift, a true gift, a gift beyond measure—and it is a gift for all, too. At this point in the book of Isaiah, Jerusalem had been devastated, the city broken and wasted by the exile of its people. As bleak as it looks, however, the promise still holds. This is a Holy People, who are not forgotten or forsaken.
This theme is echoed in our gospel lesson as well—angels fill up the sky and announce to the shepherds. “Unto you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord.” Unto you. Unto you shepherds—you people who have been called smelly, lowly, outcast, who have been called dishonest, unworthy, you who are unable to sleep in a house, but have for your bed a cave filled with animals as well. Unto you is born Jesus Christ. The angels of God personally invite the shepherds to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. No matter who you are, where you are, what you have done or what you do now, you are invited to Bethlehem to see this baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a feeding trough. You are not forsaken, and you are not forgotten.
It seems so simple; a baby is born, yet this baby is beyond our ability to achieve. We could never make God do this, yet God chooses to come to us this way. Simple. Vulnerable. Perhaps in this moment, in reflecting on the miracle of birth itself, of the helplessness of newborns, we begin to realize the gift is something we could never imagine or do for ourselves.
The book of Titus perhaps puts it best in these few verses, “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy, through the water and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit God poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
And so we enter the celebration of Christmas, aware of this gift the angels announce to the shepherds as they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to all.” We maybe even join the whole earth in their song—Gloria in excelsis Deo! We renew our connection to the larger community of faith, perhaps thinking of those stories from around the world as we contemplate this one particular story set in what is now the Middle East.
Something happens, though, doesn’t it? We spend so much time from Thanksgiving through December preparing for it, and we do celebrate—and celebrate well—for one or two days, but then December 26th rolls around, and we go back. The Germans and the British troops did cease fire for Christmas, overturning orders and strategies, but they began shooting again. We got books or presents or toys for those people who didn’t have much, but now we don’t even remember who they were. We were better for a while. We crossed the aisle or street to shake hands, but now we’re back in our proper places. We made it. We worked towards that deadline, and now it’s over. Whew! We can go back to being just like we were for the rest of the year now.
Is that all it is? Christmas—a one-day deadline we work towards? That’s reality. We go back to work, or school, or whatever, and are relatively unchanged by the miracle that has happened. What will you do tomorrow? Monday? Christmas is a celebration, yes, and a wonderful day, but it’s also the observance of the anniversary of a birthday. Birthdays are something we tend to work from—we make wishes for the coming year and use any gifts we may have to help us live it better. So it is with Christmas. We celebrate, but also think about the coming year. We are reminded that we are not forgotten or forsaken, no matter what has happened in the past. And just as we are not forgotten, we are invited not to forget, but to grow and learn and use our gifts—and this gift of Jesus—to help us better live throughout the year.