A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.
So how did baby Jesus end up in a feed trough? A year or so ago, I read an article by a scholar who suggested that the way we have been reading this sentence for centuries is mistaken. We have all seen the Christmas pageants, some of which include a kid in the role of the mean innkeeper who tells Joseph and Mary they can’t come in— “Go stay in the stable!” But the thing is, the words we translate, and what we understand by those words, don’t always match up with how things were when the words were first written. Remember, this is a long time before Mr. Marriot built his first hotel or before Motel 6 started its first franchise. In fact it’s a long time before the first public houses and inns of medieval England, which is how most of us think of the word “Inn.” When people traveled in first century Palestine, they usually found some connection, often a distant relative, who would let them couch surf.
Of course, they didn’t have a couch—the houses were quite small, basically a room where the whole family slept and a spare room used for gatherings, dining, and such like. Sometimes that area was the upstairs of the house, like the room where Jesus had his last supper with his disciples. The word we translate as “Inn”—
kataluma, was used for that room. At the far end of the living quarters was where the family brought in its livestock at night. Why? Because there were predators and thieves abroad, and people didn’t want to risk losing their few precious animals by leaving them outside. And at that end, there was a trough dug in the dirt floor to feed the animals and encourage them to stay in place overnight. If we were sitting in the 250-year-old farmhouse where Paula and I live outside Frenchtown, this would be much easier to understand: in previous times, spaces were small and people lived close together and at close quarters with their animals.
So imagine, the house is filling up with guests, travelers who maybe came to town for the census registration. People were used to piling in at close quarters, sleeping virtually on top of each other. Not a big deal. But this young woman who has arrived is starting to go into labor. What would the mother of the household do? Typically, she would get the kids to take the animals outside and watch them, clean up the end of the house where the animals normally were, and make room for Mary so that she could have some privacy, dignity and space while she delivered her child.
She laid him in the manger, for there was no space in the other room. Of course, there are other possibilities, there might have been some kind of public lodging and a stable. Either way, what we see are very ordinary people, without power or wealth, making do with what’s available, and bringing life into a very crowded and complicated world.
What we know of Mary is that she was courageous and generous. Rejoicing in the love of God. Generously giving of herself.
But the great generosity in all this is God’s generosity. God rejoices in life so much that God joined this world of very ordinary people, as vulnerable as the rest of us, subject to hardships, and sorrow and grief. Vulnerable to danger, indeed to death. And Mary took that fragile newborn, and wrapped him carefully and lay him down where there was space, in a trough where the animals had eaten. Among my favorite Christmas music are classical pieces that set the medieval Latin text: O Magnum Mysterium—it’s translated:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
The image that God’s love for creatures is so great that they were the witnesses of the moment of the Incarnation, is so beautiful, and it emphasizes that what God loves in us is our life—not our accomplishments, our intelligence, or our worldly possessions—but life itself—ordinary, difficult, joyful—rejoicing in God’s generosity, God’s love, God’s presence among us. Even as a small child.
Word of the birth spreads and the first people the messengers of God, the angels, seek out are shepherds. I remember as a kid thinking that shepherds were some exotic, dreamy guys with big hooks, living an ideal existence. I had no idea that they were the same thing as sheepherders, whose wagons you could see up in the mountains of Idaho when I was young. Scruffy guys, not well respected, well washed, or well paid. On the low side of ordinary by most people’s lights. Years later I discovered that that is exactly how the shepherds were regarded in ancient Palestine—not trusted, not respected. But God sent the angel to announce to them: 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.
It was in this way, by manifesting his glory to the very ordinary and humble workers, that God chose to reveal his great work in the world. God blesses human life in his own human life, and blesses our love by giving of himself.
So the shepherds said, “Let’s go!” Let’s see this thing! And they went and they saw the baby in the feed trough. Everybody was astonished when the shepherds told them about it, but the shepherds, they rejoiced and glorified God and praised God, because this was pretty wonderful and amazing.
As Christians, we live in hope. Hope is not wishful thinking and it’s not about the future, at least not the far-off future. With all God’s creatures and all God’s people we receive the gift of life, and living that life is hope. As a fragile baby and in his resurrection from the dead, Jesus continues that life that is our hope, not exalted or proud, but very ordinary. Let us join those sheepherders :
“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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”