Christmas Day, 2010
Once upon a time, a carefree young girl who lived at the edge of a forest and who loved to wander in the forest became lost. As it grew dark and the little girl did not return home, her parents became very worried. They began calling for the little girl, and searching in the forest, but it grew darker. The parents returned home and called the neighbors and people from all over the town to help them search for the little girl.
Meanwhile, the little girl wandered about in the forest and became very worried and anxious, as it grew dark, because she could not find her way home. She tried one path and another and became more and more tired. Coming to a clearing in the forest, she lie down by a big rock and fell asleep.
Her frantic parents and neighbors scoured the forest. They called and called the little girl’s name but to no avail. Many of the searchers became exhausted and left, but the little girl’s father continued searching throughout the night.
Early in the morning, the father came to the clearing and saw where the little girl had lain down to sleep. He suddenly saw his little girl and ran toward her, yelling and making a great noise on the dry branches, which awoke the girl. The little girl saw her father, and with a great shout of joy she exclaimed, “Daddy, I found you.”
And so this is the heart of the Christian–and Christmas–message. That God has found us–lost, alone, and virtually directionless–in the unprecedented and unrepeatable event we herald this day. Yes, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The glad and glorious news that we have been found by God when we encounter this squalling newborn occupies the central facet of the Christian faith. But our human response is: We have found him!
E. B. White once remarked, “To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult every year,” and it is hard to contest what the great writer said. It is difficult for us to see the difference between God’s acting in the world and God’s entering the world. We can easily miss the “scandal” that this silent night, this holy night unwraps.
First, God’s entering history has nothing to do with a religious figure at all. The process unfolds in far-off Rome, where a pagan imperial power–Caesar Augustus–orders a census in the unruly land of Palestine. The Romans, fastidious about numbers, took pains to account for the human and financial resources of each of their provinces. Big government, then and now, cannot live by bread alone. So through the bureaucratic channels in Rome, a peasant couple in Palestine is required to set out for a hundred-mile journey to a tiny village in Judea called Bethlehem. Never mind that teenage Mary is in the last trimester of her pregnancy. What does Caesar care? So, one tiring terrible step after the other, the couple makes the journey–only to be shut out of a decent place to stay even though her water has probably already broken. And this child, with these parents, in that situation, will be heralded as “Savior,” the “Wonderful Counselor,” or the “Prince of Peace?”
But that is the resolute message we proclaim this night. It is a brazen, some say preposterous, claim. And rest assured, all interfaith goodwill aside, no other religion will go along in confessing it. No Muslim, or Jew, or Buddhist, or Hindu will affirm what we do this day: that in Bethlehem’s stall of straw surrounded by mute animals, the Risk of all risks is taken. The Unknowable becomes the known. The Infinite becomes finite. The Formless takes form. Being itself becomes a being. The Word becomes flesh. God’s rescue operation–freeing the world from the grip of evil–is set in motion. To those who believe, the New Creation has already begun to take hold.
The late Bishop John Hines was fond of telling the story about the traveler who passed through the Louvre without so much as the faintest stirring of the spirit within him. As he stalked out the door, he said quite loudly, “There is nothing all that great to see in here.” A museum guard standing by the door overheard his remark, and took up the challenge. In his quiet manner he replied, “Sir, the paintings in here are not on trial. It is the spectators who are.”
And similarly, it is not Jesus and the Holy Family who are on trial in the Christmas festival. We are. And knowing that we are: Come— and with all we have in us– let us adore Christ the Lord.
(We have now come to the lowly manger once again and have seen the Christ child. Let us sing out with the joy we have in our hearts at meeting once again for the first time our Savior.
And as we leave this manger scene let us ponder a new what it means for each of us that God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son to save so lowly a person as me – and you.