Italy takes its nativity scenes seriously…and has since St. Francis cobbled together the first one in 1223. An article titled “On the Trail with Italy’s Manger Hoppers,” describes a few of the elaborate nativities Italians flock to see each year.
One dates from 1291 and includes the oldest known carvings of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Another places the holy family on a cobblestone street under a flimsy overhang.
Another elaborate nativity dates from the 1700s. In figurines of wood, terra-cotta and porcelain, it depicts not just the holy family, but a whole city alive and active. In that one, the tableau predominates. You have to look hard at the busy scene even to find the holy family.
Usually on Christmas Eve, we focus on the baby. And that’s appropriate. He was God, after all. But all those Italian “manger-hoppers” don’t hop around just to look at a single baby, do they? They go see the tableau—the context—in which the baby is placed…
…which reminds us that the Christmas story isn’t just about a baby being born and God showing up. No, it’s about a baby being born and God showing up in a particular context.
Into what context was the baby Jesus born? He was born to a young woman, pregnant before it was socially acceptable to be, to parents who had traveled far to be registered by a foreign government that often acted arbitrarily. This arbitrary registration resulted in an influx of people the small town of Bethlehem wasn’t big enough to handle, which meant that even a nine-months pregnant woman couldn’t find lodging. Two years later, the family would be forced to flee the government’s reign of terror.
A lot has happened in the last year. The ongoing tragedy in Syria. Terrorist attacks in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Orlando. A new level of divisiveness in our own country.
Reporting from the site of the Christmas market massacre in Berlin, a correspondent said, “It feels like Christmas has been killed.” I’m sure for people closely associated with that horrific event that’s exactly how it feels. Why go to a Christmas market if not to buy Christmas presents? Those killed and injured must have been feeling the joy of the season. But no more.
So. Has Christmas been killed? Is this all simply a rote ritual we dress up for each year to sing familiar songs, hear familiar stories, then stop by Waffle House on the way home? Do we come to this service to escape from all the terrible things happening in the world? Or is what we do here on Christmas Eve directly related to what’s happening in the world out there?
The story itself calls us to make the connection between the birth of Jesus and difficult events in the world….a pregnant teenager, being registered, seeking refuge…this is not a pretty story, or an easy one. And yet, it is the one God chose to inhabit. It is the story through which God chose to make God’s presence known in the world. God is God, right? God could have chosen to come to a world ruler in a grand city with an elegant palace…
But that’s not how God chose to come. It’s as if God says: The humble circumstances in which my son was born—these are my concern. An unwed teenage mom? She is my concern. People whose lives are blown about by every whim of the arbitrary power of others? These precious people are my concern.
If we only focus on the baby in the Christmas story, we’ve missed most of the story. God didn’t just come to be with us in the form of a baby; God came to be with us in the messiness of life—in an unexpected pregnancy, in overcrowded cities, in oppressive political regimes.
God came to be with us in our sadness and grief and anxiety…God came to be with us in Aleppo, Orlando and Brussels…God came to be with us in the darkest places of our lives… because those are the places we most need to experience God’s presence, love, and light.
There is no place, no situation, no circumstance so dark, so crude, so hopeless that cannot be transformed by God’s love. All that’s required—all that’s required—is for those present in the situation to open themselves to God’s presence. When we open ourselves to God’s presence, even the most hopeless of situations can become the very places in which love is born.
Is it easy? Absolutely not. I’d love to know Mary’s first thought when Joseph guided her into that cave with the livestock. (None of the things I can imagine her saying would be appropriate for a Christmas Eve service. J) Yet, because Joseph and Mary were open to it, God transformed that crude stall into a place of hope and love and joy.
What might happen if we open ourselves to God’s presence, joy and love in the crude places of our world? Might God-with-us transform those places as well?
If you’re ever manger-hopping in Rome, you’ll want to stop by the nativity being created in an abandoned garage. In 1972, a street cleaner named Giuseppe Ianni began building the scene. Since then, it’s grown to 275 figures and has been seen by thousands. A street sweeper creating a work of art in an old garage is beautiful. But here’s the really cool thing. “Instead of the customary donation, Mr. Ianni asks visitors to give him a stone from their home countries to plaster to a wall in the scene. They’re also “asked to pray for peace,” he said.”
Imagine that! If we contributed a small piece of Stone Mountain to the scene, we would have a stake in it. We would be a part of the context in which God-with-us comes. Our contribution would help transform the context into a place where love could be born.
Here’s the good news for tonight—we don’t have to take a trip to Rome to begin transforming the context into which God-with-us is born. Every time we serve the least of these, love is born. Every time we de-escalate growing tensions, love is born. Every time we seek the good even in the most dire of circumstances, love is born. Every time we open ourselves to God with us, no matter the circumstances, no matter the circumstances, love will be born. Thanks be to God! Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2016