We aren’t particularly good at Christmas in the church. We have dressed it up with pageants, carols, and candlelight. We preach peace and possibilities and encourage people to linger for a moment at the manger and renew their acquaintance with the new born Christ. That’s all well and good, but we seldom hear a word about how dangerous a place that manger can be.
It should be clear enough from the moment Gabriel uttered, “Fear not.” In spite of these words everyone was afraid. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all responded appropriately to the frightful messengers who came bearing glad tidings. Even Herod was afraid of what was to come and he didn’t need a holy messenger. We leave out the fearful parts when we tell the story. And we do ourselves a great injustice.
The Christian story isn’t meant to be comfortable and fill us with sweet, nostalgic feelings, not even the birth story or what follows after it. God’s love for humanity is powerful, messy, and life-altering. Yes, God came in human form to be one of us, to take on the fullness of humanity, and to show us that the worst in us is not outside the reaches of holy redemption. However, if we make it to Bethlehem to greet the sacred mystery that was born in the night, we risk being touched by that very same mystery. And when that happens, our eyes are opened to what we might have been able to shut out before meeting the Christ-child.
Matthew speaks of Rachel weeping for her children with the echoes filling the streets as Herod ordered the slaughter of all the children under age two. These sounds, joined with an angel’s warning, drive Joseph and his new family to safety in Egypt. One innocent life was spared, but Rachel’s weeping filled the streets and continues on to this day. Have you heard her crying for the unarmed Black men shot by police with no justice to be seen? Have you heard her crying for the millions of Syrians displaced and seeking refuge? How about for the Water Protectors whose pleas for the land go unheard? How about for the transwomen assaulted and murdered just because they are who they are? For the undocumented people who live with the threat of deportation? For the Muslim people who live in fear because they call God by another name? For the young women lured into sex trafficking? For veterans who wander the streets without home or hope? For the countless who are hungry, homeless, dismissed, victimized, and forgotten?
If you’ve knelt at the manger and been touched by the mystery there, then you can’t help but hear Rachel weeping and see innocents being slaughtered everywhere. Someone offered Jesus and his family sanctuary long ago. Who will offer sanctuary for today’s innocents? Who will step up and respond to those who weep along with Rachel for their lost children? Who will carry the good news of Bethlehem to those who so desperately need it?
Do you see the risk now? It’s not enough to just talk about making room in our lives once more for the Christ-child. It’s not enough to just sing carols and exchange gifts with our loved ones. Christmas is about changing the world. It’s about protecting the innocent among us. It’s about traveling a different road once you’ve encountered the mystery. It’s about living loud enough to bring love and justice into the world.
If we take the claim to be the body of Christ seriously, then we must embrace the entirety of our faith history. The church, the body of Christ, knows what it is to be a refugee and dependent on others for sanctuary. The church knows what it is to be innocent and under threat of death. The church knows what it is to be beaten and killed just for being who you are. We know these things and so much more because Jesus lived them. We also know what it means to bring healing and hope because Jesus did.
We can talk about the horrors of 2016 in terms of personal losses, terrorist bombings, natural disasters, celebrity deaths, and Aleppo burning. However, if we want 2017 to be different, it is up to us to embody that difference. If we are truly the body of Christ as we claim to be, then if one person is a refugee, then all are refugees. If one person is victimized, all are victimized. If one is homeless, all are homeless. If one is lost, all are lost. On the other hand, we can also embody hope, healing, peace, love, and justice.
The power and mystery that changed the world so long ago lies within the body of Christ today. Let’s make 2017 the year we embrace the risks of Christmas and truly be the church the world so desperately needs.
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RCL – Year A – First Sunday after Christmas – January 1, 2017
Photo: CC0 image by Gerd Altmann