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 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.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.