Luke 2: 1-20
Rev. Peter Faass
It’s amazing how our familiarity (or overexposure) with something can make us less aware of it. This overfamiliarity can cause it to lose meaning. Christmas falls into that category.
We get overexposed to the secular part of Christmas with its emphasis on commercialism and partying. To limit that relentless bombardment of the season, we put up filters to keep ourselves from being physically, mentally and spiritually overwhelmed. When the real meaning of Christmas arrives at our door on Christmas Eve, we don’t recognize it. We might look at it and reply, “Sorry, there’s no room at the inn.”
There’s a lovely framed watercolor in our parish office that captures how this happens. I didn’t pay attention to this print, which I’ve passed thousands of times, until we repainted the office. The title of the print is “The Holy Family Enters Cleveland.” The Plain Dealer wrote an article about the print, painted by the Rev. Ralph Fotia, a local Methodist minister, in 1986.
The print’s delicate strokes evoke Asian art to me. The Cleveland skyline with the Terminal Tower and the Standard Oil buildings are in the distance. The onion domes of St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral are to the right. A snow-covered field lies before them, with a small tree standing to the left. Joseph trudges through the snow in the foreground, leading a donkey that is carrying Mary as she holds her baby Jesus. The Holy Family appears to have an abstract halo over their heads.
Inside, the card reads:
Overbooked inns in Bethlehem
A waiting family out in the cold
Still wandering through our cities
Looking for the room.
Plain Dealer writer Darrell Holland stated that (the depiction and the message) “suggests the needs of the Holy Family at Jesus’ birth are reflected in the lives of many Greater Clevelanders.”
In the scripture, the Holy Family experienced hardship twice in the Nativity story:
Rev. Fotia was an urban minister, pastoring to many Clevelanders with circumstances similar to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. His painting is a theologically powerful tableau, reminding us that many others, like the Holy Family, need relief from the world’s oppressive ways.
Fotia noted, “People like the Holy Family continue to seek shelter and food and to have trouble finding them. There are still overbooked inns like in Bethlehem. Jobs are not available and people suffer.”
This powerful print breaks into the overfamiliarity with Christmas. It reminds us of the original Christmas story’s scandal. This season’s relentless bombardment should not prevent us from seeing the Nativity’s true meaning and the message it yearns to deliver.
God came into human history as a helpless, newborn baby. He was laid in a feeding trough in a cave with livestock. He was born to a young unwed couple. God was born on the road. A Super 8 Motel would be luxurious in comparison. Those who initially visited him were shepherds, those on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Everything about Jesus’ birth is antithetical to what we would expect for a kingly birth, never mind a deity’s. However, everything about this birth is a profound statement about God and, as the angels proclaimed that holy night, “those whom God favors.”
By entering history in this manner, we understand this is a new kind of King. This isn’t a Caesar living decadently in an imperial capital, ruling by intimidation brute force and fear. God help us if Caesar had gotten his hands on a cellphone with a Twitter account! Instead, Jesus’ birth is about a king, partial to the most disadvantaged, who wanted humanity’s redemption and wellness. As the angel announced to the shepherds, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
In this king, there is hope for the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless, the persecuted, the immigrant, the Muslim, the African –American, the ill, LGBTQ people, sexually-abused women, hungry children, those without health insurance and everyone who would be considered the least among us. This includes everyone wandering in the cold and snow, in a hostile world seeking a place of compassion and hospitality, in Cleveland, throughout the nation and the world. These are all members of the Holy Family. God specifically chose derided people like these to initially proclaim the good news. This is why they respond with gratitude and great joy!
Jesus’ birth shows that God has not forgotten anyone. With Jesus’ birth, the good news proclaimed that God didn’t abandon us to the brokenness and sin-sick world. In brokenness of our own dark times, the hope of that truth is the light that shines brightly from the stable of Bethlehem. The baby Jesus light calls us to be bearers of that light, to bring it to those whom Rev. Fotia stated are “Still [are]wandering through our cities, looking for the room.”
The Rev. Pat Hanen wrote this advent meditation:
“The power of God to know the truth and do right is eternal and incontrovertible. But if we follow Jesus, we have to bear the pain of using that power in this world. We have to stand up, suffering the pain of gravity. We have to do right, acknowledging our own sin, repenting from it, and changing. We have to exercise compassion, risking ourselves, recognizing that the destiny of a candle is to be consumed in giving light.”
In the newborn Jesus, God has not forgotten us. Let us not forget those he came to serve.
Let us welcome those Holy Families who wander the cold, desolate places seeking warmth, welcome, compassion and dignity. By so doing we will be glorifying and praising God for all we have heard and seen.
Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace to all God’s people.
Rev. Peter Faass
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.
A recent meme on Facebook showed a picture of two older women having coffee. One looks at the other and states, “A virgin birth I can believe in. But three wise men? Not so much!”
The Gospel of Matthew, where this passage comes from, has no birth story per se. Instead, it gives us the story of the world’s response to Jesus’ birth. First, we have the three Magi: Zoroastrian, astrology-believing wise men from Persia who traveled almost two years to see and pay homage to the newborn Jesus. Enter King Herod, who in fear, envy and great malice orders the slaughter of every male child under the age of two when the Magi do not return to give him the exact GPS location of this newborn king and perceived threat to his throne.
Despite his being born in remote place quite unlike Jerusalem, Jesus' birth does not happen under the radar. In fact, from the moment it occurs, it has seismic repercussions that reach the pinnacles of power and beyond the nation’s boundaries. To Herod, a pretty insecure leader, the newborn Jesus is immediately perceived as a threat to his power. Even before Jesus can speak, people are jockeying to get close and destroy him.
Even though the wise men mistakenly look for Jesus in Jerusalem, Jesus' eventual entry into Jerusalem is presaged with "the powers of death doing their worst" in the slaughter of the innocents that follows later in the story. But God has a plan for this unstoppable Messiah: a message of salvation to deliver humankind in word and deed that will change the world forever. Matthew is clear; there is a new power on earth to be reckoned with in all the cosmos and heralded by a star. Nothing will ever be the same again.
We are about to wrap up another Christmas season. The secular Christmas started right after Halloween and ended once all the presents were opened on Christmas Day. The sacred one will conclude January 6 (Epiphany), when we commemorate the wise men’s arrival at the stable in Bethlehem, delivering their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Every Christmas season, we hear of some new battlefront in the alleged “War on Christmas.” This year, that battle took the form of the accusation that Starbucks’ holiday coffee cups were threatening the sacredness of Christmas by not having bells and evergreen trees on them. Mind you, the cups were bright Christmas red and had the deep green and white Starbucks’ logo on them, making them look pretty “Christmasy” to me. Starbucks also carried Christmas tree Advent calendars and sold their usual special blend Christmas coffee beans, so it’s not as if Starbucks had somehow pressed the delete button on all things Christmas.
A more familiar battlefront in this “War on Christmas” frequently takes place in city halls, where city leaders debate the relevancy of nativity scenes in public squares. These battle lines are generally drawn around traditional Constitutional separation of church and state concerns. This then leads those who advocate for nativity scenes on public property to assert that we are a “Christian nation,” arguing that an overt Christian religious symbol is in fact appropriate on public property.
Well, if that assertion was once true, it certainly no longer is. Our nation is a multicultural, multireligious and multiracial place. In fact, America looks more like the heterogeneous place that Jesus came to promote as a place called God’s kingdom rather than a homogeneous one. So in fact the exclusive Christian Nativity scene is not a symbol that secular government should be placing on property held in trust for all people.
In the eyes of Matthew's Gospel, these arguments about the war on Christmas must not only seem ridiculous, but an indictment of what the church – or certainly many of her adherents - has become.
Matthew tells of the incarnation of God in Jesus that moved people to radical, life-altering acts. Jesus’ birth struck terror into the heart of Herod, who responded by using his power to seek out and destroy this babe’s power, God made man. This birth also inspired three foreigners to risk arduous and dangerous travel to come and pay him homage, presenting the child with the world’s most precious gifts at his feet.
Whether or not the Nativity scene is allowed on the town green, or Starbucks uses images of bells, evergreens or its own logo on its cups, Christmas hardly strikes us with fear or acts of true homage anymore – except those folks waiting for their January credit card statements. In fact, just the opposite has occurred with Christmas. We have, by and large, made its meaning benign, if not downright insipid.
There are some recent examples of the Church striking fear or great awe in the hearts of the world’s Herod. Archbishop Romero, Archbishop Tutu and Pope Francis have certainly stirred things up and given people pause to think about the power of Jesus. For the most part, Christianity has lost the power that the Incarnation of God brings to earth.
In his Christmas Day New York Times op-ed piece, “The Christmas Revolution,” writer Paul Wehner states:
“The incarnation . . . reveals that the divine principle governing the universe is a radical commitment to the dignity and worth of every person, since we are created in the divine image.
But just as basic is the notion that we have value because God values us. Steve Hayner, a theologian who died earlier this year, illustrated this point to me when he observed that gold is valuable not because there is something about gold that is intrinsically of great worth but because someone values it. Similarly, human beings have worth because we are valued by God, who took on flesh, entered our world, and shared our experiences — love, joy, compassion and intimate friendships; anger, sorrow, suffering and tears. For Christians, God is not distant or detached; he is a God of wounds. All of this elevated the human experience and laid the groundwork for the ideas of individual dignity and inalienable rights.”
It is this radical and life-transforming understanding of Christmas that each and every human being has intrinsic value. The gift God has given us in Jesus is that God valued us so much he became one of us, and that reality strikes true fear in the world’s Herods, because if we are all equal, we no longer need them.
Jesus' threat to the powers of his day (and the present) brought an alternative to those powers – the Realm of God. It’s a place where all humans are intrinsically valuable because God loves us all.
Think about this truth in light of some of the issues we face today. If all human beings are intrinsically valued, how can we not love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves?
If all human beings are valued by God and we are all made in God’s image, how can we not honor and support the Black Lives Matter movement? Not because Black lives are worth more than other lives, but because so many people do not see them as being of much value at all. That inequality results in injustice and hatred and death for many.
The Realm of God plays by different rules and does not recognize the powers of this world. The Realm of God invites us to participate in it by inviting the powers of the world to take even our own lives from us as a way of showing that the world has no power over us.
Our churches are supposed to be alternative communities to the world’s ways. We are supposed to do things differently; we are supposed to be different. God’s incarnation proclaims it. We should proclaim and witness this as faith communities. Only in so doing will we will grasp the true meaning of Christmas. When we do so, Jesus is born once again.
 “The Christmas Revolution,” Peter Wehner, The New York Times, December 25, 2015
Rev. Peter Faass
I wander as I wonder out under the sky.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9:6)
When what to my wondrous eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul.
O Star of wonder, Star of night.
Walking in a winter, wonder land.
All who heard it wondered at the things which were spoken to them by the shepherds. (Luke 2:18)
The theme of wonder is richly woven throughout Christmas hymns, songs and sacred scripture. Wonder permeates Christmas in both secular and sacred celebrations. What is more wondrous than a flying reindeer and a jolly fat elf that comes down chimneys and leaves good folks gifts? What is more wondrous than the virgin birth of God incarnate, in a backwater town 2,000 years ago with angelic choirs singing Gloria?
At Christmas we revel in the wonder of children as they experience twinkling lights, festively wrapped gifts, the taste of delicious sweets, Santa Claus and Nativity figurines. Christmas is full of wonder in all its iterations.
And yet, here we are on the morning of December 25 after yet another arduous, over-wrought “holiday season,” and our reserves of Christmas wonder may be in short supply or exhausted. We certainly are!
Christmas can leave us feeling quite depleted of our wonder from all the planning, baking and cooking, the partying, shopping and wrapping, the preparations at home and church, or dealing with difficult family members. We may even feel jaded and cynical, thankful that, well, it’s finally over. If we think this way, it’s antithetical to the whole point of Christmas. Jesus was born so that we, who sit in great darkness, can see his great light – wondrous light that has the power to banish cynicism, jadedness, and exhaustion in our life.
R.S. Thomas was a Welsh poet and Anglican priest who lived from 1913 to 2000. Among Thomas’s works is a poem titled “Blind Noel” that addresses how we lose our sense of wonder at Christmas:
Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal the pattern.
Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out. In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.
Christmas: Even when the themes are exhausted, “there is always room on the heart for a snowflake to reveal the pattern.”
I think this is one of the loveliest theological phrases about Christmas I have ever encountered.
I think Thomas is saying that even when all of the stuff of how we have come to observe Christmas sucks the wonder out of us leaving us exhausted, God makes enough room on our hearts to place one more snowflake to reveal the wondrous meaning of Christmas. In the shadow of so vast a God who desires to do this, we shiver as our wonder of this awe-filled season is restored.
This theology-wrought poem goes to the heart of the Christmas story and the doctrine of the Incarnation. God became human in Jesus to lift us out of all those life-sucking behaviors and attitudes that plague the human condition. In his life, Jesus role-modeled a way of life for us to emulate; a way of life that would bring us out of darkness to light, out of cynicism to wonder, out of fear into love. That is our salvation.
While we recall and celebrate this wondrous gift at Christmas, we are called to this way of life all the time.
When I prepare adults for baptism, (or the parents and godparents of infants), I always dwell on a particular section of the concluding prayer in the service. It is one of my favorite phrases in the Book of Common Prayer.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. (BCP p. 308)
I ask people being prepared for Baptism to think of a baby, growing into a toddler and then a child. I then ask them to think about what they recall as they observe that little one growing in awareness and discover the world around them. Think of the first time they encountered a flower, a puppy or a kitten, a bug, dirt, a tasty new food? What was that child’s response? It was an “aha moment,” right?
Each first encounter with something new and delightful becomes a moment of delight, awe and wonder. Each of those wondrous moments in the child’s life are moments when God placed a new snowflake on their hearts, revealing the patterns of God’s love for them. The child delights in each new snowflake because children have not grown cynical, jaded and exhausted. They know – at some intuitive, primal level - that God’s Creation (all of it) is filled with wonder. That wonder fills them with joy, and that joy always calls us to gratitude.
In the Baptismal prayer, we are reminded to recapture that sense of wonder for ourselves that children have. We want to let go of our exhaustion and grasp the promise of wondrous love that radiates from Bethlehem’s manger.
This Christmas morning, is there still room in our hearts for another snowflake to reveal its pattern of God’s vastness and abundant love to us? Of course there is, because that is God’s way and desire for us.
There may not have been room at the inn for Mary and Joseph, but ultimately there was room in the stable for the birth of our Saviour. If there was room for his birth when everything appeared full, there is room on your heart to accept the snowflake of the Christ child, so that he may reveal the pattern of Christmas and fill you with his love.
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
 No Truce with the Furies (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1995), p. 84.
Rev. Peter Faass
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’
How familiar and heartwarming are these words from Luke’s gospel of the nativity of Jesus? Whether we hear them for the first or hundredth time, they feel like a comfy pair of old slippers or a great terrycloth bathrobe, cozy and secure.
In my pagan wilderness days, when Christmas was about revelry, gifts and nothing particularly religious, I would come home late from a Christmas Eve party, find my Confirmation Bible, and read this passage before I went to bed. Images of shepherds guarding their flocks and angels proclaiming the good news evoked a sense of safety and security. It was a lovely way to fall asleep.
I don’t know why the story of Jesus’ birth evoked this sense of comfort during my non-religious days. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. As with many people, I saw the Christmas story as nothing more than a fairy tale – a wonderful story bringing a brief escape from reality. After all, I also read Clement Clarke Moore’s T’was the Night Before Christmas every year. While it is also a heart-warming story, it certainly qualifies as a fairy tale, ending with a neat and tidy phrase like “and they lived happily ever after” or “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.”
Time teaches us that the realities of life are much more complex than these neat and perfect endings. Life is frequently hard, challenging and seldom has impeccable endings.
I now know that scriptures are not fairy tales, but significant ways that God communicates with us. Their meaning is often multi-layered, frequently profound and always life-changing. Through them, God guides us through life’s arduous and less-than-perfect circumstances. As it states in The Second Song of Isaiah, “My word that goes forth from my mouth . . . will not return to me empty; but it will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.”
God’s word has a purpose and it will accomplish - one way or another - His intent. In the nativity story, that purpose delivers good news to people who live in darkness and fear life’s challenges. The birth of Jesus, God incarnate, is the good news of one who has come for our salvation and to set us free.
To meaningfully experience this good news, we can get creative with the story to comprehend the wonders of God’s grace and salvation. Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame did that brilliantly.
As some of you know, I have been mesmerized by Schulz’s animated holiday feature, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on this, its fiftieth anniversary. Each time I watch it, I am always moved by one special moment. You know the one. It occurs in the midst of the chaotic, commercialism of the season that all the Peanuts characters are reveling in and that causes Charlie Brown to cry out in frustration “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
Little Linus comes forward – security blanket and all – and says, “Sure Charlie Brown, I know what Christmas is all about.” And then he recites the Luke nativity story.
After fifty plus viewings, I never noticed one small detail of that scene until now. It is quite amazing.
Linus, as Peanuts lovers know, is most closely identified with his ever-present blue security blanket. Sally, Lucy, Charlie and Snoopy persistently and unsuccessfully try to separate him from that blanket. Linus clutches that blanket and refuses to give it up.
Except… except in this climactic scene when he recites the story of Jesus’ birth. It happens quickly, but once you are aware of it, it is plainly clear. When Linus speaks of the angel who has appeared to the shepherds and utters the words “fear not,” he drops the security blanket.
It’s unbelievable: Linus drops his blanket when he utters the words of the angel, “fear not.” In this simplest gesture, Charles Schulz delivers a brilliant, profound message about the birth of Jesus. Charles Schulz got the gospel's message. In Linus’ simple gesture, Schultz offers a perfect distillation of the good news though Jesus’ birth.
Our world can by a scary place. There are many things that we fear, both real and perceived. Certainly our fears can be played on and exacerbated by those who want to manipulate us to their own ends.
The birth of Jesus is meant to separate us from all our fears:
The birth of Jesus allows us to drop those bogus security blankets we grasp as we try and allay those fears.
With the birth of Jesus, we do not need to hold onto the accumulation of material goods to provide us with security. When we drop that blue blanket of our false security, we learn to drop all those idolatrous things that separate us from God’s grace and our salvation. We no longer need drugs, booze, food, work or our electronic devices. We do not need to find comfort in the false security that some people are more beloved by God than others. We do not need to find security in the hate-mongering and bigotry that pours from the media and the political class.
The good news of God given this night is that ultimately, the birth of Jesus allows us to trust and hold fast to him instead: and to him only, for he is our hope and our salvation.
God promises the words “fear not” to all people. To us is born this night a Savior who is the Messiah. He will comfort and heal us. It is he who knows all our needs and who has our best interests at heart, because he loves us more than we can ask or imagine. That’s why he came to be among us, to show us that love.
Fear not. The Messiah is a bringer of peace — peace to our hearts and souls. He completes who we were made to be.
Fear not. Even now, as he lays in that manger in Bethlehem, Jesus knows our needs, desires to take care of us, and to make us whole.
Fear not. Just drop that security blanket. For unto to you is born this night in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Fear not.