Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Light Bulb in the Manger

A Sermon on Luke 2:1-20

Like the congregation I currently serve, my childhood church presented a Christmas pageant during an Advent worship service every year. But in stark contrast to my current church's Christmas pageant, the Christmas pageant my childhood church presented every year was emphatically NOT FOR CHILDREN. The shepherds were adults, the wise men were adults, Joseph and Mary were adults, and the narrator was an adult. The script had been the same every year since about 1901, passed down on type-written yellow pages. Each set of characters silently acted out their parts as the narrator provided a voiceover, and then each group made their way to the nativity tableau, which seemed to glow with a heavenly light. There were roles for four children: two pre-teen girls were selected to be angels, and the two best-behaved seven-year-olds would be chosen to represent the modern Christians who were still devoted to the Christ-child. They would don their Christmas finery, climb the tall, tall steps to the nativity tableau, and lay wrapped presents for charity in front of the manger, posing there with the shepherds and angels while the congregation came forward with their own toys to donate to needy children. I yearned to be in the Christmas pageant – I just remember feeling so drawn to that nativity scene, glowing there in the darkened sanctuary. And the year I was seven, my prayers were answered and I was selected.

That chilly Sunday morning, I climbed the tall, tall steps in my forest green velvet Christmas dress and knelt in front of the manger, trying not to wiggle. But I couldn’t resist – emanating from the manger was this heavenly golden glow, and I just had to look in. I edged forward, as surreptitiously as possible, still kneeling, until I could peer over the edge of the manger. In I looked, holding my breath. And what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a 100-watt light bulb wrapped in orange cellophane.

A light bulb wrapped in plastic. That's what they were using to represent Jesus. Because, of course, no one was going to be able to see it, and they didn't want to bother with a doll or, God forbid, a real baby, a real baby who might fuss or cry, babble or wiggle.

That says something to me about how we as a society have come to think about Christmas. Of course, we get all up in arms about the commercialism and materialism of our contemporary Christmas celebrations. Of course, we worry that our secular festival of gift-giving and cookie-eating has distracted us from the Gospel stories of Christmas. Of course, some people oppose the trends of multiculturalism and religious tolerance, claiming that there’s a “war on Christmas” because public schools and retail establishments don’t assume everyone is Christian – which I actually think is a wonderful way to respect our brothers and sisters of other faiths. But that's not what I'm talking about today. I think that sometimes, when we reflect on Christmas, we imagine a night of pristine holiness, perfect order and peace. Our images of Christmas are often so simple and lovely and quiet and glowing that we have a hard time imagining that there might have been an actual baby – a noisy, drooly, sometimes smelly baby – in that manger.

But as I studied the Gospel lesson for today, I was struck by its absolute insistence that the first Christmas was every bit as messy and difficult and disorganized and REAL as our real lives, right here, right now, two thousand years later.

The Christmas story, like many of our stories, starts with some bureaucratic red tape. Our real, everyday lives can get thrown out of whack by all kinds of things: a canceled flight, some problem with the bank, a summons for jury duty. And so, too, with Mary and Joseph in the Christmas story: "A decree went out from the Emperor Augustus that all the world was to be registered." An interruption, an inconvenience, that just seems to come at the worst possible time, taking no account of our lengthy to-do lists and packed schedules, or the aching back and swollen feet of a pregnant girl. There's nothing to be done about it, and so Mary and Joseph set off to Bethlehem, where the time comes for Mary to give birth.

“She gave birth to her firstborn son,” we read in the gospel, “and she wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” After five Christmases in this city, those words have taken on new meaning for me. Luke tells us of a Bethlehem filled with transient people, weary travelers “making do,” crowding into inns and stables alike for the census… and it reminds me of New York, with all the people coming and going to do their shopping, see the sights, and visit family, and all the people who are just passing through on their way from one place to another. Sometimes, it reminds me of our living room. At this time of year, calls pour in from family and friends. “I missed my greyhound bus,” says a weary friend, “The next one isn’t until tomorrow.” “The couch is already taken,” we reply, “But if we move the dinner table we can put a sleeping bag on the floor.” There is usually a bit of room at our little Manhattan apartment inn, but when the travelers are hungry and the groceries are scarce, sometimes we find ourselves out in the streets of lower Manhattan, wandering from door to door because there is just no room at the diner.

"In that region," the gospel writer continues, "there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night." The story of Christmas does not happen to people who are attentively watching and hoping, silent and prepared, waiting for Christmas. During Advent, we do try to prepare our hearts and minds, but the Gospel insists that Christmas comes bursting in, ready or not, on people who are busy, working, trundling along with their everyday lives. It comes to us, too, when we have other things to do, family crises and work projects; flocks to watch and papers to write. And it comes to all kinds of people. Despite all of our romantic mental images of beautiful green fields and soft white sheep, shepherding was not a particularly respected job in the ancient Near East. But Christmas comes to us all, the Gospel reminds us, not just to well-behaved, neat-and-tidy, church-going people. It is, the angels proclaim, good news for all people.

When I look back on the Christmas pageants of my youth, where the shepherds were artfully smudged with little streaks of brown makeup to represent just a tiny bit of dirt, and the baby Jesus was represented by a glowing light bulb in the manger, I know that we had forgotten something. Christmas is not about getting all of your ducks in a row – logistically, or theologically. It is not about constructing the perfect nativity tableau, it is not about Martha Stewart crafts and perfect pie crusts, it is not about making everything “just so.” No, because Christmas, at its heart, is about Christ coming into the world. And that world is messy, and busy, and difficult, often beautiful but never perfect or pristine. Christmas is about immanuel – God With Us. Us, real people with all of our flaws and imperfections, our mismatched socks and broken relationships. The Good News of Christmas is that in Christ, God comes to messy, busy people in a messy, busy world. Or, as the Christmas song I Wonder as I Wander puts it, Christ comes “for poor, ornery people like you and like I.” And so it is, every year, with Christmas. Christmas comes to the world as it is, not the world as we would prefer to imagine it. That is what we forget when our Christmas pageants are perfectly choreographed and synchronized, with perfect shepherds and perfect wise men and a perfectly behaved light bulb wrapped in cellophane.

But there was something real and true about the light bulb in that manger, as well. There are two different Gospel readings for the day of Christmas; one is the Christmas story I’ve been talking about. But the other one is from the Gospel according to John, and we read it together at the beginning of worship today. It speaks of the mystery of the incarnation: it declares that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the light of the world. "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."

Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, who came to show us God's love and God’s grace. Decades later, Jesus would tell us that whenever we give a hungry person a sandwich or a thirsty person a drink of water, we do it for Jesus. Jesus teaches us to see Christ in the faces of our neighbors, to love one another as Christ loves us, and to see ourselves and one another as beloved children of God.

The light bulb in the manger didn’t look much like the baby Jesus. But light bulbs are not for gazing at; we aren’t supposed to stare at them. We are supposed to look at what they illuminate. In that light, the faces of shepherds and wise men, Mary and Joseph, glowed. They were everyday people, like the people in the Christmas story; they were accountants and janitors, school teachers and postal workers. They juggled work and church and home. They shoveled the church sidewalks and raised foster children and coordinated food drives and edited the church newsletter. The light from that manger, the light of Christ, shone on their faces that day, and maybe they looked a little like they look to God: created, beloved, holy, everyday people, people whose lives have been changed forever by what happened that day in Bethlehem. We stood around the manger, and we were illuminated by the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
Thanks be to God.

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