Christmas Eve Homily 2019
The Power of the Manger
Rev. Douglas Taylor
I will admit, I’ve grown weary of the Christmas music season on the radio. To be clear, I like Christmas music, what I’m struggling with is the Christmas music season. I don’t listen to the radio much, usually when I am in the car. I have been avoiding the stations that have been playing the Christmas music all the time since November. They are all so upbeat and jingly. I don’t know about you, but it feels like too much.
I do like Christmas music. There are many carols and songs that I love. It’s not the music itself I don’t like. It’s the constant airplay for an entire month or two that wears me out. And maybe I’m getting old and crotchety. Maybe it’s just been a hard year for me. Maybe it’s just a phase I’m going through. But I can’t handle that much jolly all the time. Or, I can’t handle that much jolly without the counterbalance of the context.
Too often it feels like the loudest version of Christmas is the one that screams at us to be joyful and have a party and buy presents for everyone. I’m not saying I’ve become the Grinch. I don’t mind parties and presents. I am 100% in favor of joy. Again, there’s nothing wrong with all that – it’s just missing the counterweight of the context.
Consider this story we tell of Jesus born in a manger. The songs and TV specials show it through a lens of awe and wonder. The image of angels singing is heartwarming and tender. The wisemen arrive bearing gifts. Mary and Joseph are smiling down at their baby while the animals in the barn add a pastoral air to the whole scene.
But the best part, the most important part of it all, is missing in these images. These images are like snapshots showing a moment in the story but not revealing the full message in the story. The best part is the juxtaposition of the simple goodness of the scene with the surrounding danger of it all.
The context of the story of Jesus’ birth is a context of foreign occupation. The whole reason Mary and Joseph took the journey to Bethlehem was because they had to. The Roman Emperor decreed that everyone had to travel to their home city to be counted.
How would you feel if there were a law suddenly passed saying you had to travel to the city of your birth and register for the census? Where is that? Can you afford the trip – the cost in time and money? Not going is not an option.
Mary and Joseph had to travel. And travelling when you are that pregnant is risky, infant mortality rates 2000 years ago were significant. Yet, they made it. The mother and the baby both survived the journey.
And then, 12 days later when the wisemen arrive, they do bring those interesting gifts – and they bring news as well. There is a king who wants to kill the baby. So, the new family flees into the night. Where would you go if you had to flee at a moment’s notice like that? This story is actually pretty frightening when you sit with it for a while.
This baby is born in the context of oppression and the threat of violence. Jesus, asleep in the manger, we sing, where he lay down his sweet head. He is small and vulnerable and helpless. What the people wanted was a warrior, a powerful leader to free them from the oppressors, a savior who would rid the land of the corrupt liars seated on the thrones.
What the people got instead was a baby. A vulnerable baby at risk and in danger.
Let me tell you about the power found through vulnerability. Vulnerability, at face value, is about being at risk, open to attacks and being hurt. It is to be unprotected. Vulnerability is not a position of power. Normally. But that’s the whole point revealed in the context of this story.
The majestic wisemen, who in some versions of the story are even kings, would normally be venerated; but in this story, they bow down to a baby. The lowly shepherds would normally be the bottom rung of the social status; but in this story, they are the first witnesses, they are the ones to whom the angels appear. This is intended as a tale of the birth of a king, of god incarnate; but in this story, the child is born in an inglorious stable. Everything about this story is a reversal or upending of expectations.
And yet, that is the way the story goes. The context sets everything at odds. And we discover, there actually is peace in the midst of this turmoil, there is hope and joy arising from right here in the middle of trouble.
Now when you see the adoration of the wisemen, hear the angelic voices singing of peace, witness the young parents smiling down at their infant … in the context of the threat and danger surrounding them … it is all more poignant.
I love the Christmas songs of peace and joy and light, but I don’t want to hear them without the context of why that peace and joy and light are so precious, even now, even today. The message of hope arises because things are not all daisies and sunshine. The message of hope and joy arises out of the trouble and turmoil that surrounds. Hope doesn’t just happen. It grows out of the impossible. Hope grows out of hardship.
Is there turmoil in the land where you are living? Is there turmoil in the life you are living? This is where the story can take us. Not in showing us a beautiful picture that we should try to replicate. But in revealing how in the midst of oppression and grief, we too can shine light.
This is the message I love about Christmas; the message Jesus brings and the story of his birth reveals: There is a power in the manger, in that low and vulnerable place. We have been there ourselves in our lives at times. The power revealed in the manger is the power of hope and of light. And we all participate in that power when we open ourselves to our own vulnerability.
Yes, there is corruption and greed in the country. Yes, there is terror and injustice and destruction in our land. Yes, there is loss and grief and death and suffering in our lives. And, yes, there is a light that shines out at midnight, a mere glimmer. But it is hope and it is life and it is within you, too. The power of the manger is the message that hope is always born in the small and vulnerable places, in the hard times and turmoil, out of the impossible. That’s the point.
And we find ourselves gathered here on Christmas eve, at the edge of the deep night, singing our songs of peace and joy. Let us remember to hear the whole story and understand the power of these songs. Let us remember the whole story because we are living the whole story.
The hope of the season arises not from the picturesque scenes of those nativity moments. We sing songs of hope and peace tonight, hope for our world and for ourselves. Hope for all those in danger. Hope that the corrupt empire will crumble. Hope for more compassion in our daily living. Hope that we can come through the danger and turmoil into a lasting peace.
Amidst the family gatherings and favorite traditions, the festive meals and candy, the giving and receiving of gifts, and any other trappings that may be attached to your experience of the Christmas holiday; let us have compassion for all those in danger tonight. Let us learn that the joy and hope of Christmas arises amid the trouble, but that the glory of it all is tucked into the simple actions of simple people like you and me – the simple actions that bring more light and joy and peace into the world
Merry Christmas and may God bless you all, now and through the coming year.