Over 2,000 years ago - think about it - that’s a long time ago - God sent a fragile, helpless baby boy named Jesus to teach us how to love. Luke tells us he was born in the humblest of circumstances, in a stable, into a world clouded in darkness, into a country living under the occupation of a foreign government, who worshipped their emperor as a god, into a community where the haves pretty much had it all, and the have nots lived off the scraps. Into this world Jesus was wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, an animal’s feed troth.
“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” announced the angels to the shepherds. But Jesus turned out not to be the kind of Messiah they had been anticipating all those years. He did not come to overthrow the Romans. He was not a warrior king. He came as a beacon of light in the darkness showing us how to open our hearts to God’s love and how to share it with each other.
God reared Jesus under the loving care of his parents Mary and Joseph, filling him with laughter and tears and compassion, with anger and love and devotion. He walked the earth as a feeder, a teacher, a healer and and antagonist:
lover of the unlovable,
toucher of the untouchable,
forgiver of the unforgivable;
loved by women, feared by men;
befriended by the weak, despised by the strong;
ultimately deserted by his listeners, and betrayed by his friends.
He came to teach us how to love, and that’s a tall order. We are slow learners we humans, and reticent to change our ways. He came to teach us how to see the world in a different way, through the eyes of God.
We have short attention spans, and it’s not only the elderly who have lapses in memory. The lessons that Jesus came to teach require learning over and over again.
But as Luke tells us, those who witnessed that birth in the stable - who had eyes to see and hearts willing to be opened, saw the light of love and were transformed by it. Just as many of those who followed Jesus during his lifetime were transformed, and passed that light and wisdom and love on to future generations.
We are creatures of ritual and metaphor. We are creatures of our senses. We see, we hear, we touch, and something becomes real to us. So each Christmas we try to recapture what those shepherds in the fields must have felt that starry night when the angels opened their eyes to a new reality, and they left praising God for all they had heard and seen.
So we fill our sanctuaries and our neighborhoods with colored lights and candles, Christmas trees with stars and angels. We sing some of the most beautiful music ever composed to celebrate Jesus’ birth. We dress up like Mary and Joseph and shepherds and angels, and retell the ancient stories. We bake cookies and our favorite sweets, we party and shop till we drop - trying to forget our woes, the state of our world, if only for a while, and recreate that joy and hope and love and peace that Jesus came to share with us.
Christmas is a sacred time, a time to remind us of why Jesus came. But so often the true meaning of Christmas gets lost in all the glitz and hullabaloo, co-opted by our secular world. Christmas shouldn’t end when we take down the tree and pack up the nativity figures for another year. If it does, we’ve missed the whole message.
In that stable long ago the gap between God and us got closed. In that wrinkled baby God showed us a new way of seeing each other and the world. God showed us a way to touch each other’s hearts, to close the distance between each other, to share ourselves, even with those who irritate us, even with our enemies.
Rachel Naomi Remen writes in her touching memoir My Grandfather’s Blessings, “The act of seeing can transform the person who sees and cause us to see differently for the rest of our lives.” (repeat) Christmas is about learning how to see the world in a different way. It’s about transforming our lives.
Remen tells of flying back from Florida a week before Christmas, sharing the back of the plane with dozens of seven year old boys and their parents, returning from a national baseball competition. They had won second place so emotions were running high, along with the noise level. Changing seats proved impossible. The plane was full.
Dinner turned out to be an ordeal. A freckled, red-headed kid spilt a coke on her and mumbled, “Sorry, Grannie,” as he ran down the aisle.
Reading or any kind of work was futile with the chaos that surrounded her. Finally, resigned to the situation, she struck up a conversation with her neighbor, a very heavy black woman with a cranky two year old, who had marked her slacks with his shoes before take-off and now was off with some of the older kids.
Remen remembers, “I asked her about the baseball league. She began to tell me about the time she spends with the team, the hours of cheering them on, of going door to door to raise money for equipment and travel, and why she was here now with two of her sons. ‘You can’t just keep having kids,’ she said. ‘You gotta keep them alive.’ In her neighborhood many boys were dead or locked away by twenty, victims of drugs or violence. The league was her life insurance for her kids. Remen looked at her with new respect. She had four, all under the age of ten. The little guy was her baby.
Remen remembers, “She asked about my own life, and I told her about my work with people with cancer. A sadness filled her eyes and she began to tell me about her neighbor, a woman like herself, a single mother with four little kids. Six months ago she had been diagnosed with cancer. ‘The chemo she has to take is terrible,’ she told me. ‘It makes her so sick, sometimes she can hardly get out of bed. I sure hope she makes it through.’
She spoke of her neighbor’s symptoms, her neighbor’s fears, the nightmares that awakened her almost every night. As she unfolded the story, Remen began to wonder how she knew so many of the intimate details of her neighbor’s life, and so she asked her this question. Her answer stunned her. When tragedy had struck next door, she had simply moved her neighbor and all her children into her own home. They had been there for the past five months. Remen looked at her closely. There was not the slightest air of martyrdom or self-congratulation about her, just this natural reaching out to a person in trouble whose life was next to her own.
Shortly afterward her youngest returned, and she once again held him on her lap, feeding him french fries from his bag with her fingers until he fell asleep. After a while the lights were turned down for the movie. Exhausted, many of the children had fallen asleep and many of their parents were sleeping too.
Remen recounts, “I took out my book, found some Christmas music on my headset, and began to read. We flew over the heart of this country. After a while I glanced over at my seat mate. She too had fallen asleep, her face beautiful and serene, her sleeping baby in her arms, clasped against her great belly. On his head was the gift the fries and burger company had given all the children, a paper hat in the shape of a small golden crown.”
Leo Buscaglia once wrote, “We have finally mastered the meaning of Christmas when Christmas becomes a way of life.” Christmas is not a one time event. It happens over and over again, whenever we open our eyes and see the world in a different way - through the eyes of God - whenever we are able to love each other as God loves us.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come - not “has” come - but “is” come, once again. Won’t you sing with me:
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing....
Please God, give me eyes to see you in unexpected places. And give me a heart ready to receive you wherever and whenever you appear.