Many years ago when I was the young rector of a church in a small New England town, the youth group and I came up with what we thought would be a wonderful Christmas offering for the folks in our local community. We anticipated that our offering would rival—and maybe even eclipse—the town’s annual lighting of the community Christmas tree and the Christmas Eve visit to the town common by Santa Claus, arriving on the back of the volunteer fire department’s new Engine #1. And Santa’s visit was a “big” deal because every child who came to the common to greet Santa received a toy.
The youth group and I envisioned a living manager scene, but unlike any ever seen in our town. Not only would we have young people dressed up as Mary and Joseph, and a real live baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling (and warm) cloths, but lots of shepherds, and I mean lots of shepherds, three magnificently robed kings, attractively winged angels including the ominous and well-known Gabriel, and a flock of real live sheep provided by a local farmer, all penned in by a small fence that surrounded the make-shift plywood stable, and the Holy Family. We were also able to get a donkey named Diablo, a name most fitting for what was about to transpire!
The town paper had been notified about the opening night of our living manger scene, and in such a small town as this one was, lots of folks came out to witness the great unveiling. All was in place for the first night: Mary, Joseph, angels, Gabriel, wise men, lots of shepherds, a flock of live sheep, and Diablo the donkey.
Anticipation was at the “code red” level. In the beginning it was magnificent. Proud parents of the participants smiled and waved approvingly to the cast. The town newspaper sent a photographer to record the opening. And things were unfolding just as we had anticipated. Except for one thing. When the three kings entered the enclosed manger scene and crèche, the last one in procession forgot to close the gate keeping the live animals in with the participants and the Holy Family.
As soon as Diablo the donkey saw an opening he was out of there! Quick as a flash Diablo was headed in a fast trot toward the library about a half mile away, and he wasn’t going there to take out a few books!
What to do? First, Joseph left Mary and the baby Jesus and raced after Diablo, hoping to head him off before he trotted out onto the main highway that cut through town. Mary, now husbandless, stood to assess the unraveling of the perfect living manger scene, only to be overrun by the sheep that now were very confused and agitated by Diablo’s departure.
Baby Jesus started to bawl, Mary was knocked down by the exiting sheep that were now being chased by eight shepherds dressed in cut out burlap grain sacks, carrying broom handle staffs and wearing Chuck Taylor “hi-top” sneakers. The confused sheep were now heading toward the town cemetery followed by the frantic, loudly shouting shepherds, more in keeping with a Good Friday message than the incarnational good news message of Christ’s birth. And the Angel Gabriel, representing the biblical directives of God himself, stood by wailing, “What am I supposed to do now?”
And so came an abrupt ending to what will always be remembered in that small New England town as the “Saint Mark’s Christmas Stampede.”
The story of Christmas is a powerful one filled with anticipation, hopefulness, and the reclaiming of our common humanity under the mantle of God’s unconditional love for each and every one of us. Our living Christmas manger scene of almost 40 years ago was a flawed but nonetheless a well-intentioned way of telling that story to the town in which our church resided.
The reason why, after more than 2,000 years, Christmas still holds the attention of the whole world and brings us all together in this magnificent Cathedral tonight is that Christ’s birth defines a profound theological truth: that God loved the world so much that he came into the world born as Jesus, the Christ child. And through the miracle of the first Christmas, God took on the flesh of all humanity.
This Godly intentionality was to claim once and for all the conscience of God’s human creation so that collectively that creation would become his hands, his feet, his heart, his mind, and his soul—the change agents of a new order in the world he created—where all would be respected and none would be despised.
The timeline of history in the Holy Land when Jesus was born and that followed him throughout his adult years was very much like our timeline of today: hunger and poverty were rampant with a few having much and many having very little and where human life was expendable if the cause for taking it seemed necessary.
Jesus’ timeline and ours are tragically similar even after more than 2,000 years. War and the co-lateral slaughter of innocents and the aimless wandering of refugees from one country to another is still a part of our contemporary human existence. The usurpation of human rights and the diminishment and lack of the rule of law make it difficult for many of God’s children throughout the world to grow into what God intended them to be. And the use of religion to justify the taking of another person’s life or land has no validity in the twenty-first century. No one has the right to take another person’s life in the name of God! No one! And no one has the right to take another person’s land in the name of God! No one!
Walls, humiliation, and violence within the Holy Land for too long now have deeply divided Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the beloved children of Abraham and God. From its very beginning and right up to today, the Holy Land that we remember in our prayers, hymns, and Christmas carols is called holy because the land still belongs exclusively to the God who created it and who continues to hold it in trust for all the children of Abraham…not just for one Abrahamic faith tradition. The divisions today in the Holy Land must make the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad weep.
And as it was in Jesus’ time, the world is still in expectant waiting that things will get better. And I have every reason to believe that they will! And that is what this Christmas and every Christmas is all about.
And so you may say tonight how do I know that? Remember well and commit to memory the words that begin the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with 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.
And if that doesn’t really get your attention, then I place this before you tonight: Why is it that God sent the Angel Gabriel to reveal the Law to Moses? And why is it that God sent the same Angel Gabriel to reveal the sacred and Holy Quran to the prophet Muhammed. And why is it that God sent again the same Angel Gabriel to reveal the good news of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to the world?
Remember on this Christmas night if you remember anything: we all share the same God and the same divine messenger in the Angel Gabriel. This is no accident! Make no mistake about it! This is God’s doing! Oh, how the world groans in its expectant waiting for a more peaceable kingdom. And with the birth of Jesus, God has made it clear that the work that must be done to realize this peaceable kingdom on Earth is now up to you and me. Let us once again begin this important work together.
And may this Christmas be for each and every one of you a great blessing, a time of healing, a time of re-dedication to the faith that has brought you here, and a re affirmation that all of humanity was and continues to be created in the image of God and, therefore, must be treated respectfully, tenderly, and with the deepest respect and love.
This is a central teaching of Jesus. And this is the gift we unwrap tonight in our celebration of his birth.
Merry Christmas…and God Bless! Amen!