One of my favorite parts of Christmas has always been the pageants when children take it on themselves to act out the story of Mary, Joseph, and the manger in Bethlehem. I like them so much partly because they make the Christmas story seem so down-to-earth, but also because there is always the potential for things to veer off course. Pageants, for my money, need to be at least a little rough around the edges, like the one a friend of mine recently recalled. When Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she would give birth to “the Son of the Most High,” the little girl playing Mary said in a loud voice, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” And the girl playing the angel, thinking it was up to her to explain all this, just gave a little shrug, as if to say, “Beats me, Mary. I’m just the messenger.”
Religion often presents itself as lofty, dignified, something that ordinary people often don’t quite know what to make of. The Scripture stories can sound obscure, the sermons filled with strange religious words and concepts, it can be hard to feel moved by a lot of nineteenth-century English hymns.
But at this time of year you can come to church and hear and sing music you love, in a church decorated to the nines, and you hear a story that is about as down to earth as you could imagine: a husband and wife making a long journey to visit relatives, worried about paying taxes, getting ready to have a baby. All of a sudden things aren’t so lofty after all.
We celebrate Christmas as days are their shortest and the nights seem to go on forever. We look back on a long, hard year. Have any of you lately ever found yourself asking the big questions—questions you might ask gazing up at a cold, dark December sky. “Is there really a God up there—or anywhere for that matter? Does God, or the universe, really care about me?” We feel our smallness, with so many forces pressing in on us beyond our control, one batch of cells on a speck of a planet amid billions of galaxies floating through space. Does anyone out there really care?
I imagine a fair number of you at some point have come across a popular song called “From a Distance.” It has been sung by Bette Midler, Nancy Griffith, and plenty of others, and in many ways it has been one of my favorites. The tune is beautiful, and the words invite you to look at the earth from far enough up and away that you would envision an immense landscape of people and lands living alongside each other. “From a distance,” the song goes, “there is harmony, and it echoes through the land.”
Then it says, “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us from a distance.” It’s a beautiful thought. But it is the farthest thing from Christianity. God for Christians isn’t some distant power so spiritual as to exist above and beyond earthly life. God isn’t a benevolent grandfather watching the children at play. The whole point of Christian faith is that God didn’t stay up there watching us but chose to come down, to come in, to be near, born in a manger. As we just heard a few minutes ago, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
Christian faith isn’t so much interested in high noble ideals for themselves, but in a God who gets through to us in a baby in a manger and in a man hanging on a cross. We don’t have to search the skies to wonder if anyone is up there. The deepest truth in the universe is that God came near.
And this Christ comes not just once but again and again—entering our lives, calling, nudging us, holding us when things fall apart, confronting and then forgiving us. We meet him in the words of Scripture or a moment in church, in the words of a friend when we most need it, across the table at a soup kitchen, in the face of an African child in a magazine, in the face of a parent who now needs us. So if we want to know God, if we want to know what’s up there, or out there, we need to know this child.
And God knows we need his ways of peace and healing and hope. Here at the drag end of the Great Recession, with worries over jobs, climate, health care, war, and the ups and downs of our own lives, we need him. We need this one who comes to us in the flesh, in an infant, and keeps coming even now.
More than a century ago the theologian Søren Kierkegaard gave us a story of what Christmas means. It was, he says, a cold, snowy Christmas Eve, with a wild storm raging outside. A woman pleaded with her husband to join her in going to the Christmas Eve service in the village. But to no avail. He said he would just sit by the fire and let her go.
And so he did, dozing off and on, until he was awakened by three loud thumps on his window. When he looked into the snow he saw three geese hopping about looking stunned. Apparently they had been lost in the storm with the wild winds and maybe had been seeking out the warmth of the house when they crashed into the window.
The man knew if they were left unprotected in the storm, they would die. So he dashed out to the barn, opened the door and turned on the lights in hopes that they would find their way in. But they were too afraid and kept hopping farther away. Every move he made to bring them in made them move farther.
And then it struck him, “If only I could become one of them. Then they would trust me and follow, and I could lead them to safety.”
And just then he could hear in the distance the bells of the church, pealing the announcement of Christmas. And he realized, that’s what actually happened on that cold winter night long ago. God came near.