God Is Here: The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
December 24, 2022
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For years I have been collecting crèche sets for my wife Melissa. She loves them in all their diversity, and I love getting them for her. For the most part, they are all composed of the same figures. There is Mary and Joseph, a few farm animals, a couple of angels and shepherds, three wise men, some sort of a trough that acts like a cradle, and the baby Jesus. Some of them come with a stable and some of them don’t. Some of them have a star and some of them don’t. But each is unique and special and an important part of our family holiday tradition.
When I first started buying these sets years ago, I was especially attracted to the ones that had the most intricate detail. They were often porcelain, carefully crafted and expertly painted. I loved the fine, almost Renaissance detail in each of the figures. But then many years ago, on my first mission trip to Guatemala, I found a crèche set that changed my opinion. It wasn’t made out of fine porcelain but rough-hewn wood. It wasn’t expertly painted but colored with shoe polish. It wasn’t carefully made but carved on the side of the road by someone with a pocketknife. I didn’t know what to think of it at first, but I bought it and brought it home because it was the only set I could find. However, over the years that crèche set grew on me. In fact, whenever I travel now, I only buy sets that are of a similar rough and raw quality. I have them from all over. Clay figures from Honduras. A coarse stone set from Turkey. A tall thin wood and leather set from Kenya.
I mean, let’s face it, in spite of the hundreds of beautifully intricate works of art that have depicted the nativity in paintings and sculpture over the centuries, the first Christmas was anything but porcelain perfection. To the contrary, the first Christmas was very real and raw and messy. Mary was an unmarried young girl far away from home. Joseph was a poor carpenter trying to deal with the fact that his betrothed was carrying a child that was not his own. They had no hospital in which to bring their child into the world, not even a midwife. They didn’t even have a room to call their own. No, the first Christmas was not what you might call Hallmark sweet.
But if you think about it, that’s the wonder of this night. Who wants porcelain perfection when there is nothing perfect about this world or our own lives? The wonder of Christmas is that in the birth of Jesus we are shown that the God we worship is not distant and ethereal. Our God is not a God who is cold and indifferent, but a God who humbles himself to become one of us – flesh of our flesh – bone of our bone – to share our joys and our pains, to know our laughter and our struggles. No, the wonder and beauty of Christmas rests precisely in its rawness – a babe born in a manger amongst smelly farm animals to an unwed, underage couple a long way from home.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the rawness of that first Christmas because in recent months, the Cathedral has been supporting an immigrant family, four refugees who risked everything to come to the United States. They walked close to 2,500 miles. A mother and father with two small children, a four-year-old boy and an 18-month-old girl, walked from a small village in Venezuela north through Central America across the full length of Mexico and into Texas with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. It took them more than three months to make the journey. They left everything they knew. They suffered hardships that I cannot imagine. They ventured out on what seemed like an impossible journey because they dreamed of a new life, a better life, a safer life in the United States.
Now they are in the DC. They have nothing. The father can’t work because of his immigration status. The four-year-old boy rarely speaks, he seems traumatized from the journey, and who can blame him. In recent days, working with Iglesia San Mateo and Episcopal Migration Ministries, we are trying to do what we can here at the Cathedral to support them, to make sure they have housing and enough food to sustain their family.
Friends, this is real world stuff and the Christ child whose birth we celebrate this evening was not born into porcelain perfection but into that same real world. Even before Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were themselves immigrants, uprooted from their home in Nazareth and made to travel some 80 miles to Bethlehem so that an authoritarian regime, the Roman Empire, could count its citizens in order to better tax them. And the first trip the infant Jesus made, so soon after he was born, was to flee from Herod, who sought to kill him. We should never forget that before they were just about anything else, the holy family were immigrants and refugees.
I am reminded of something the Rev. Dave Simpson once wrote, “When the bills come and there’s not enough money in the bank account, and there seems to be little hope of ever catching up much less getting ahead, we may wonder, “Where is God?” When our children make bad choices and even reject us, when our spouses let us down and even leave us, we can certainly wonder, “Where is God?” When we are confronted with disappointment and pain of all sorts that are part of life in the real world, we wonder, “Where is God?” Jesus Christ is God’s answer to that question. God is in the manger. God is on the Cross. God is walking out of the tomb. God is here! That baby boy was born into the real world – a world where a powerful empire, Rome, could cruelly dominate the Jewish people. A world where a pregnant woman and her betrothed had to deliver their child in a place where animals fed. It was a world in which a cruel king would order all the children under two years old to be killed because of his jealousy and fear of the newborn king. And it was a world in which that baby would grow up and be hung on a Cross until he died, even though he was the only person who ever lived who did not deserve death at all, much less to be executed as a criminal. Jesus is a real savior born into a real world – into the world in which we live. He was not immune to the disappointments and sadness and suffering and grief that we experience. ” In fact, he knew them all.
Some years ago, there was a story in the Huffington Post about a young man from Mississippi named Caleb Beaver who died on Christmas Day from a rare congenital disorder. He was only 16 years old. His family was devastated but they donated his heart, lungs, liver and kidneys in the hope that something good could come out of their terrible loss. For eight months following Caleb’s death his mother April wished for some way she could feel close to her son again. Then one day her prayers were answered in a letter from Charles Shelton, a psychiatrist from Kentucky who on December 26, the day after Caleb died, received Caleb’s heart through organ donation. Now Shelton wanted to thank April and her family in person. So, that October, the Beavers invited Shelton and his family to come to Mississippi for a visit. The local newspaper was present for their arrival and there is a powerful photograph of April, holding onto Shelton. She is smiling but there are tears running down her cheeks. She has a stethoscope around her neck, and she is listening to the beating of Caleb’s heart. “It’s real,” she said. “That’s Caleb,” Shelton responded, as they stood holding one another on the tarmac.
On Christmas, God sends us his heart, the essence of God’s self, in the gift of his son. He does it to give us life, to give us hope. In the birth of Jesus, God understands the importance of really being there. God comes into our messy, roughhewn, world and says – “I love you so much that I am willing to become one of you, to feel what you feel, to think what you think, to laugh as you laugh and to suffer as you suffer.”
So, my friends, what does this mean for all of us? Well, because God has taken on human flesh – human flesh and the work of human hands are now the means by which light and life come into the world, how grace and truth come into the world. This means that now we, you and I, are to embody the love and compassion of God. Now we are to embody the grace and truth of Christ. Christ was born as one of us so that we might become like him, live like him, love like him. The question for all of us this evening is – if God held a stethoscope to our chests, would he hear his son’s heartbeat? Do we allow Christ to be born in us, to live in us, to live through us?
This evening I want to share with you the words of a beautiful Arabic hymn. It is called Laylat al-Milad and it is sung throughout the Holy Land during the Christmas season.
When we offer a glass of water to a thirsty person, we are in Christmas
When we clothe a naked person with a gown of love, we are in Christmas
When we wipe the tears from weeping eyes, we are in Christmas
When we cushion a hopeless heart with love, we are in Christmas
When I kiss a friend without hypocrisy, I am in Christmas
When the spirit of revenge dies in me, I am in Christmas
When hardness is gone from my heart, I am in Christmas
When my soul melts in the Being of God, I am in Christmas
My friends, Christ has come into this very real world of ours and the good news of this miracle is that we are not alone. That is the promise of this holy night. So let us welcome the Christ child. Let us celebrate his birth. But more importantly, let us pray that his life will become our life, his heart our heart, and his work our heart’s desire. Merry Christmas.