By Rev. Dr. Karen Schuder
Message on Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2018
Now it is Christmas Eve. Now we are celebrating the gift of God’s love in the birth of Jesus. Now it is time for singing Christmas Carols, for being with family, for eating good food. Bring on the holiday traditions, smiles and meals. Yes, Christmas is a time to celebrate, but it is also so much more. Yet how often expectations based on what we see Christmas as the perfect time for the perfect gifts and meal with the perfect family can make it hard to see and experience the more of Christmas. What we want to see shapes how we see and it is only when we let go of expectations that we can really see the beauty of what Christmas means for us now.
I saw a striking example of how expectations can blur meaning and beauty when I was at a conference in Barcelona, Spain. As part of the conference I was able to go with a group to Our Lady of Montserrat, a Catholic Benedictine monastery high in the mountains outside of Barcelona. The monastery is considered one of the holiest places in Spain and is famous for a number of reasons, including being the place Saint Ignatius went when he was changed by Christ’s love to dedicate his life to God rather than to the military. It was in a nearby cave he began his spiritual writings and would eventually begin the Jesuit order. About 3 million people visit Montserrat in its beautiful setting each year.
On this trip I decided to wear my clergy collar, as I do sometimes with the sole purpose of trying to get people to see women differently. Yes, I did get a lot of surprised looks and one man who did not quite know how to respond to a woman wearing a clergy collar recovered a sense of respect and allowed me to go ahead of him in the long line to see another famous piece of the monastery: the Black Madonna, a statue of Mary holding the Christ child. People wait for hours to see her for less than 30 seconds, and say a quick prayer to her. Many believe this statue is a direct conduit to God, and you can feel the reverence as you approach the Madonna.
The Black Madonna is beautiful and black. The Catholic studies scholar leading the group I travelled to Montserrat with gave us the audio tour on the bus ride up the mountain and spent a significant amount of time giving theories explaining why the Black Madonna is black. I found this to be annoying at the time and downright frustrating after seeing her because of a simple reality: she is beautiful black. Why not allow her to simply be black and admire the inspiration of God’s love shining through her as she is? Not as she maybe once was or how we think she should be. What people wanted to see affected how they saw. Expectations spoiled the simple beauty of God’s radiance above and beyond what was considered proper.
What Christmas expectations spoil the beauty of God’s radiance in the Christmas story and hide the ‘more’ in Jesus’ birth? We have such high expectations of Christmas that especially fall short after life has changed and we have suffered loss. We think of it as a time of always being surrounded by loving people and laughing joyfully, but it can also be a time of loneliness and marked grief or sense of loss. We picture perfect families, but when reality hits we are reminded once again our families don’t always fit Christmas card perfect. Coupled with the exhaustion of all that should be done, our Christmas expectations make it difficult to see the more of Christmas now in today’s world.
Really what does Christmas say to us now beyond the artistically decorated trees and gifts? Luke’s Gospel starts out reminding us who has political power, the Roman Emporer Augustus and Quirinius, the governor. They represent an empire, social oppression and the lack of perfect balance in the world. Just as we can feel powerless and are impacted by political leadership, so too Joseph and Mary must have felt powerless when they were forced risk the baby’s safety travelling to Bethlehem to register. To make it more challenging, when they arrive there is no place for them to stay.
It is curious that Joseph and Mary could not find a place to stay in Joseph’s hometown. In the world and culture of their time, hospitality was a very important part of daily life. Surely Joseph had extended family members in Bethlehem, but they could only find room in a stable. Could there have been some family rift or disagreement so that Joseph would not ask? Or perhaps his request was turned down. Maybe people knew about Mary’s condition of being pregnant when they weren’t officially married and did not want to be associated with such scandal. Whatever reasons, we can see it is likely that Mary and Joseph’s family did not fit Christmas card perfect and in this we can find consolation at the very humanness of our own families.
Despite the shortcomings of the first Christmas setting, Mary gave birth to the child. Other than happening in a stable, the birth was quite ordinary, but the responses to the birth were extraordinary. In chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel the angel appeared and spoke in the temple’s most sacred room where only one designated priest could go. In the birth story, the angels did not appear in the temple nor in the city where the stable was, but it was in the fields outside of the city where the shepherds were.
Shepherds were considered by the religious leaders to be unclean and so, you could say, were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. They were literally and figuratively outcasted to the fields beyond the city, dwelling with the animals in their care. It is to these outcasts the angel appeared to give the announcement of Jesus’ birth. The Messiah is born in Bethlehem! Suddenly a host of angels sang glorifying God and proclaiming God’s peace to all through the Messiah, the child born in Bethlehem. The shepherds were given the announcement and a choice. Will they go find this child or stay in the fields?
They responded saying, “Let us go now” and they left the field to find the baby, the sign of God’s love that brought them together with Mary, Joseph and others. These shepherds told Mary and others what the angels had proclaimed. Think of the courage and inspiration this took since it was likely people would not listen to or believe shepherds. However, people did hear them and did believe.
Mary treasured their words and kept them in her heart. After all, she did not have the luxury of hearing the angels’ announcement and there were continued challenges ahead. Perhaps the unknowns she faced, especially since there was a newborn to care for, touched her heart, clouding the Christmas euphoria we like to color the setting of Jesus’ birth with. Mary allowed the faith and inspiration of the shepherds to sink in, encourage her, and give hope that would strengthen her for the trials she was going to face.
The shepherds were presented with the good news of God’s love in Jesus and made choices that changed the world. They left their comfort zone and went into the city to find the child, and they shared the good news about that child to others. Then they did a rather astounding thing – they went back to the fields. Discovering the Christ child did not lead to setting up a new life of luxury in downtown Bethlehem, but gave them new perspective of who they were in the setting of life they called home. Even on the outskirts of town, they belonged to so much more than the fields around them. They were connected to people by God’s love, even if those people would not acknowledge it.
So too Mary and Joseph faced a family life filled with challenges, yet they were given the assurance of God’s continued work in their lives. Despite the loneliness or hardship the Christmas story characters may have experienced at times, the Christ child birthed new hope, new connections. Their voices were heard, they were embraced by others and, most importantly, they knew God had claimed them. Jesus shattered traditional understandings of power and acceptance. With Jesus’ birth, God emphasized the “now” of faith.
Now we can choose whether or not to embrace the Christ child. Now we can leave our comfort zones to connect with others, even those we want to keep in the fields. Now we are to bring good news and hope to others. Now we can ponder faith witness given by others and treasure what those words mean in our own lives.
Now, even when we feel powerless, we can know God is at work and we can be a part of that work. Today at the CHUM vigil we remembered 56 people who have experienced homeless and died this past year. The 56 included many in their 20s and 30s, teenagers, a young child and an infant. It is a reminder that we need to do Christmas work long after tomorrow in our homes, cities and world.
Whatever images of Christmas perfection we place on our expectations of Christmas, this day calls us to peel those images away so we can see the real “now” of Christmas. Just as people try to impose their own understanding of beauty on the Black Madonna at Montserrat, our society will consistently try to impose the Christmas perfect understanding of this holiday, but when we really look at the story of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Jesus the beauty is much greater than those holiday trappings.
Now is the time to peel away expectations of Christmas perfect hiding the real beauty of Christmas. Now is a time for hope. Now is a time to bring change reflecting that hope. Now is a time to speak up. Now is a time to be loved and to love beyond our comfort zones. The more of Christmas is here now.