Luke 2:1-20 1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:1-20 Likely, under normal circumstances, we set some pretty lofty expectations for Christmas. We plan to get our Christmas Cards out early in December. We make lists of gifts to purchase and take some time off work. We plan to attend Christmas tree lightings, and gatherings with extended family, and work parties. Some plan vacations during this time as kiddos are out of school. We do a lot of extra baking and coordinate an extensive holiday menu for the big day.
But while Saint Nicolas is the patron saint of the Festival of Christmas in many Christian traditions, this year, we might contend that Clark W. Griswold is a more appropriate one.
In the classic Christmas movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the Griswold patriarch sets high expectations for the Holiday season. This year, everyone is going to experience “a good old-fashioned Griswold family Christmas.” But these expectations are met with mishap after mishap. Technical issues with his exterior illumination project, animal hijinks, an unexpected visit from Cousin Eddy, house fires, sewer explosions, and financial problems hijack the carefully planned Christmas season, and we get to watch as Clark unravels.
This is not the Christmas season we planned. The 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic has changed all of us this year. Perhaps at first, when things began to change in mid-March, we thought we would have to forgo Easter gatherings or put off a conference or spring vacation. By summer, we talked about how our children may or may not be returning to in-person schooling in the fall. When the surge hit in November, many of us returned to strict, pre-summer precautions. And this evening, we gather on our own and can’t but help but feel that this Christmas is somehow diminished, somehow broken by the cousin Eddy’s and tree fires of this pandemic year.
At first glance, we might have heightened expectations about the scene that takes place in our gospel reading. We picture Jesus’ birth as it's been represented on thousands of Christmas Cards, Nativity arrangements, and classic works of art. A child lies in a comfortable looking manager after the work of labor is over. Gathered around him in the cleanest barn ever depicted are doting parents, friendly animals, and well-dressed shepherds, or Magi. The sky is clear, except for a single bright star hovering over the scene. It’s beautiful, perfect, and just as we wish it.
But Luke’s telling defies those expectations of perfection. During winter, Joseph and his pregnant fiancé have to travel for a census so the Roman Empire can impose higher taxes in the region. The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem is only 90 miles, an hour in a half for us by car, but several days of walking for this couple back then. When they finally get there, Mary has gone into labor. Lodging is hard to come by. Our story says that there was no room “for them” at the inn, not no room "at the inn." Were they not permitted entry because of the couple’s marital status or the baby’s questionable paternity? So they find a barn, where animals eat and sleep and poop and stink, and there, Mary, after hours of labor, gives birth to a baby. They have nothing to wrap him in, so they tear strips of cloth from their own garments and tightly wrap Jesus to keep him warm enough to survive the elements.
We can imagine the holy family that first night: concerned parents worried about a baby’s survival; plans made about completing their census requirements and how to travel back with a post-labor mom and infant child; a shared fear that their presence and non-traditional family structure might cause a problem in the little town.
At some point, a band of wild-eyed shepherds arrives, young men dressed for sleeping outside, among their flocks. They looked rough and probably smelled as good as that stable. And they want to see the child. Is this safe? They are invited in or force themselves in. Unexpectedly, they are overjoyed. They shared the strange vision they had about a child born in Bethlehem and a choir of heavenly angels singing about a coming peace. And Mary, who was still in pain from labor, and worried about her future, heard the words of the shepherds and, as the original Greek “compared” these words to her present reality, and treasured them in her heart. Somehow, in that smelly barn, God was there.
Our Christmas story is not about creating high expectations and pulling off the plan to perfection. Instead, our Christmas story is about how God showed up in the unlikeliest of places and was present with a couple of outcasts and their newborn child.
And I wonder if our greatest moments and memories of Christmas are not about how a family gathering was pulled off to perfection; rather, everything did not go as it should, and still, the presence of God was felt, and the spirit of Christmas was shared.
My favorite memory of celebrating the Christmas season here at the United Church of Hinesburg happened a few years ago at the Holiday breakfast. As is our custom, we have a gift exchange. We match gifts to their recipients by matching the first line of a Christmas Carol to the second. A host sings the first line, and everyone joins in the second. But our regular host, Judy Parker, has a previous engagement and asked Mary Eddy Stewart and me if we could take over. Mary can sing. I cannot. But I’m the pastor of the church and can’t really say no to such requests. So, Mary and I sang the first lines to many of our favorite Christmas carols together. A train wreck ensued. Somewhere between not knowing the tune, starting in different keys, and a lot of mumbling by me, we painfully performed our hosting duty, singing the worst renditions of Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger, and Frosty the Snowman you can imagine. Peg Pratt, a long-time member of the church, heckled us the entire time for good measure. And it was a blast. Those who were there remember it well, I guarantee. And the joy of Christmas was there too, not because it was perfect, but because it wasn’t.
If God showed up in a backward, backwater, poverty-stricken town 2000 years ago to give Mary and Joseph a little hope and peace and love during a difficult and challenging time, why wouldn't God show up, in the same way, today to all of us?
2020 has not gone as we’d hoped. And this Christmas season has defied expectations in many challenging ways. None of this was in the plans. But maybe God likes to show up when our worlds seem lost, when we face challenges from every side, when hope is had to come by. Maybe God’s presence, which provides comfort and love, justice, and hope, can feel even closer this year because we need it more.
We know that a vaccination to combat the virus is here and close to us. We know that at some point in 2021, we will be able to gather again, sing together again (for better or worse), and laugh together again. We know that soon, and very soon, we will be able to visit our parents and grandparents, our children and grandchildren, and all those COVID babies in our lives, born during the pandemic. We have some hope this Christmas that the world will get better.
May God be present with us this Christmas. May the God of hope, peace, joy, and love comfort us during this challenging year. And may we take time to treasure these moments in our hearts, with all their joys and troubles, and imagine what good God has for us, for the entire world, in the coming year. Amen.