By Christmas morning we have told the story of Jesus’ birth in the stable many times in this parish church.
At two p.m. we used the crèche to tell the story to the tots and toddlers. At four p.m. the older children told the story themselves–dressed in costume and singing favorite carols. When we tell stories to children they want to know: what happened? And what happened next?
And how did it feel? Exciting? Scary? And then what happened? And when the story is over—they enthusiastically say: tell it again! We love story at every age. Story helps us make meaning and connect and order information. Story helps us to remember. When we tell the Christmas story, we tell it so the littlest child can understand about the birth of Jesus into the world. They heard it with wonder and joy! They heard about: Animals! Shepherds! Kings! Angels! Stars! Presents!
To children, we tell the story episode by episode.
They are carried onward by each series of events. As we become adults, we start to connect the events to the larger context, and the realm of symbol. We have a bigger view. If children hear the story at ground level, adults comprehend it at a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet. We think about the history, the geography, the political context of a narrative. That is how we perceive the richer meaning.
We tell our story as part of a system; the story is of our family, our culture, our nation. In the chapters there are segments devoted to life passages and the great themes of humanity: journey, love, loss and survival. So a larger understanding of the Christmas story might go like this:
Jesus was born in an occupied country to an oppressed and punitively taxed people. The people of Israel were poor, and the boot of the Roman Empire was on their neck. They had little that we would recognize as freedom. The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, was peace with a knife held at their throat. But they had hope, and a long tradition of expectation that God would rescue them. God had already saved them from oppression in Egypt and they watched for their savior. They knew where to look for him; the prophecy foretold that God would anoint a Messiah, a king, from the line of the greatest king of Israel: David. David was a shepherd, and became the shepherd of his people. The first visitors to the manger were shepherds, who came to see the baby who would become known as the Good Shepherd. Jesus was born in the city that was David’s home, called Bethlehem. In Hebrew Bet-Le’Chem means house of Bread. Jesus became the daily bread of his people, feeding them body and soul—his first bed was in the feeding trough in the stable.
The Magi also came to witness the arrival of Jesus, bringing rare and precious gifts. Gold was the tribute paid to a king. Frankincense (incense) was the gift of incense to a priest. Myrrh, a resin like incense, was used for healing and embalming; Jesus was a healer and became a sacrifice. The Magi’s gifts were oracles concerning the life Jesus would lead: king, priest, healer and sacrifice.
Jesus’ birth was heralded by Angels, which are divine beings, and messengers from
God. Their presence in the narrative shows God’s glorious presence in the world at the birth of Jesus and throughout his life and ministry.
Jesus was born to people who gathered in hope. And not only people! Animals gathered around, evoking the imagery of the Peaceable Kingdom prophesied in the book of Isaiah. The Christmas story tells of a Prince of Peace, the source of our daily bread, and God keeping faith with the people of Israel.
Is there more?
We have events at ground level, and we have cultural and symbolic meaning at 30,000 feet. Is there more to the story than this? Is a greater understanding possible? Is there greater wisdom and vision to open the story of Jesus’ birth to us?
There is the wisdom of John the Evangelist. John’s Gospel account begins before the familiar actors arrive on the scene. He begins before the birth in Bethlehem. He begins before the Creation. John tells us of a heavenly birth. The story is told not at ground level, nor at 30,000 feet, but at a cosmic level. John tells us the Christmas story as it is written in the stars!
There is no projection screen in the worship space of most Episcopal churches, and when talking about the beginning of the Fourth Gospel is the only time I wish there was. I would really like to be able to point to the pictures we have from the Hubble telescope as images to have in mind when we hear about the creative Word of God. NASA has released images that are visual renditions of cosmic poetry and song. One image is of stars sparkling before a lava-red body shrouded by a celestial cloud, like a halo obscuring a divine being. There are images of galaxies, planets, and nebulae dancing in the cosmos. The celestial bodies they show are so far away that the telescope is actually looking billions of years into the past. Scientists do not agree what the beginning of the universe was, or whether or not there was a Big Bang, or whether the universe is 10 billion years old, or 15 billion years old. And if they ever agree, they are likely to speak the language of numbers, not of meaning. It is wisdom that brings meaning. So to the mental images you have of cosmic beauty, I will add the poetry of John the Evangelist:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John’s vision encompasses the universe, and the moment of Creation. John speaks to the part of our mind that can reach out and tenuously connect with the cosmic dance and music of the spheres. John’s Gospel speaks of light and darkness–it is the most consistent and powerful imagery in that Gospel. And it is fitting after the tender scene of the birth of the baby Jesus into a dark world, we hear this poetry in the bright light of morning. And though it is categorically impossible to explain poetry, this is what I hear from St. John:
Jesus is the Word of God. A word is the product of breath and intention. It is as close to the heart and mind of the speaker as it is possible to be. The Word is not a Thing, it is an essential expression of meaning. That the “Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” is possibly the single most important claim of the Christian faith. God entered created time so that we could know God.
In this passage, Jesus is not mentioned by name, and our vision is not limited to the beginning of time, or the earthly life of Jesus. How does the story end? In Joy. In Shalom. At the cosmic level–in God’s time–justice has been established. In God’s eternal time, the Peace of God even now reigns. We don’t know what will happen in any given day, but we know that our destiny is to see a new heaven and a new earth, and we can participate in that future. God invites our labor and the dedication of our hearts to that destiny, and that gives us Hope.
The Word of God is our origin, our present, and our future.
The Word announces freedom in a time of captivity, the gift of peace in a time of conflict, and joy even as the lamenting continues. How do we hear the Christmas story at this cosmic level? There is peace without oppression. There is power without palaces. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Love is at the center of everything. Christmas gives us an incarnate experience of God’s vision of Shalom—the wholeness and goodness of creation, the peace of God which passes all understanding. The peace of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer be with you. Peace be with you now and always.