…We gather because these stories remind us that for all the craziness of our social lives and our personal lives – our historic faith was born amidst even crazier rulers, additional migrants looking for a home, natives who offered no place for a pregnant woman to rest…
Our family arrived into Madison on the first week of January, 1999. The long drive from Fresno, CA to Madison saw an increasing amount of snow as we came closer – from a dusting at the Grand Canyon on New Year’s Eve, to a couple of inches in Santa Fe, to a full-on blizzard in St. Louis, to a blanket of about 15 inches here in Madison on January 5. We arrived in the early evening and I stopped at the church to say hi, get a key, and drive over to my brother’s house for dinner with cousins.
At that time, before some landscaping, the church had a plywood cut out of the nativity scene up near the building on Gilbert Road, with a spotlight on it, so at night it projected a lovely shadow on the building of Mother Mary, Father Joseph, and the guiding star and, wait, where was Jesus?
That first night I noticed as we drove by there was no baby Jesus. I later learned that he was buried in the snow. I made a joke about it – a good liberal Protestant church that had a nativity scene but was so conflicted about the role of Jesus in our faith that he was simply not there. Did anyone notice? Did anyone care?
When a church begins the season of Advent in early December, there are theological reasons for not having Jesus at the manger; but afterwards, in early January as we are still celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, still reveling in the birth of a small child? What kind of Christian church celebrates Christmas with no Jesus?
The wooden nativity set disappeared years ago, but the place of Jesus – as a baby or an adult – is still a challenge for many of us. Even in the church.
Across the world, we probably know more about Jesus today than ever before. There are more books, and newly discovered and translated scrolls, both of which give of us insight into his life, his beginnings, his culture, and the degree to which the gospels reflect what he said and what others wanted him to say. The study of Jesus is intriguing and fascinating, if you are that type. I have loved it. But unless all that study leads us to deeper convictions about how to live, it may be overrated. Knowing what you think or believe about Jesus is not what Christmas is about. Having intellectual, philosophical or even political ideas about Jesus is not the point of Christmas.
Rather, the meaning of Christmas begins as we consider living in the footsteps of Jesus and sharing his spirit with a community that seeks the same.
Christmas is partly about gathering. Sociologists would say one of the best things religions have done for humanity is call them together on a regular basis to seek their best selves.
It’s also about moving from our head to our heart. We may start our religious quest with our mind, and the mind is very important, but it doesn’t end there. As individuals and as a community, we thrive and evolve allow our heart and heads grow in sync with each other. And then we add our feet and our hands.
We gather on Christmas, in this Progressive Christian tradition, because we know that all of us are in need of more compassion, grace, and the ability to forgive, to let go of judgmentalism and minimize hate in our lives. We gather on Christmas not to prove a religious or theological point, but to live good news. What the Bible calls ‘gospel.’
I’d go so far to say that it doesn’t matter what you call yourself. A Christian, a Jesus follower, an ambiguous seeker of Light, a confused mess, a dutiful relative joining other relatives at a Christmas Eve service. Even if I did care what you call yourself, I’m quite certain God doesn’t care. God doesn’t care what you call yourself or what name you give to God either.
What matters, indeed what really, really matters in this chaotic season is living with the wisdom, courage, guts and hope modeled by Jesus. We gather because these stories remind us that for all the craziness of our social lives and our personal lives – our historic faith was born amidst even crazier rulers, additional migrants looking for a home, natives who offered no place for a pregnant woman to rest. We gather around a story that includes a small collection of seekers – the bible calls them wise men – who had to deceive the political leader so as to save the life of a child. Love was born of this. Courage was sharpened through this. Hope came alive in a new way in the deep darkness of such a time.
Where is Jesus after all? Under the snow, back in the closet, lost in our imaginations? Maybe the more important question tonight is who are we? What do we offer to the world?
That’s the gospel that matters. May Jesus inspire us with his life even if the theological ruminations of belief bore us or confuse us. May the love each of us share with each other and those in our sphere of influence inspire us even if our politics and our religious persuasion are divergent.
May something precious be born in each of us this season, something that makes us better people, better friends and neighbors, better partners and lovers. May something precious and powerful take root in you, in me. May our observance of Christmas not be about an old story, but rather an old story born anew today in service of a better tomorrow.
May it be so. Amen.