It’s here. Love is here. Christmas is here.
And I want to congratulate you. You got here. Some of you, in addition to getting yourselves here, which is an accomplishment in itself, got other human beings fed and dressed with their shoes probably even on the right feet, and not only that, you got those other human beings here too.
This time of year, we’re all exhausted, and it’s an accomplishment to get anywhere on time with even our own shoes on the right feet. And this is especially true these days, when we’re all feeling weighted down by tragedy and controversy on the news and in our own lives. And no matter which positions we occupy, this time of year, we worry about what our relatives will say at the dinner table this year.
You’d think that with this anxiety, we’d learn to let go of our high expectations for what Christmas should be — shiny, new, perfect.
That’s a cute thought, isn’t it?
Christmas is, as SNL puts it, the Hallmark Super Bowl, the high holy season of high expectations and visions of perfection and glistening snow and perfect trees and adorable, happy children who never get upset. We expect to celebrate Christmas with people we love and people who love us who, also, never get upset.
Every year, we expect everything to be perfect and for the kids not to cry in the Christmas card photo and for that one uncle to, just this one year, not go on a political rant at the dinner table.
You might be feeling lonely this time of year. Or you might be using the sermon as time to mentally scan through a to-do list a thousand miles long, hoping that everything will be perfect for tonight and tomorrow. Or maybe, both.
Maybe it’s because I was raised in the South, but I let go of the postcard vision pretty early because there was literally never snow like on television. I didn’t see snow fall from the sky in person until I was 19, though of course, we had plenty of fake cotton snow in all the mall displays.
You see, I should clarify that I was raised in the rural South, which is roughly equivalent to being raised in an issue of Better Homes and Gardens or Southern Living. Despite our yearly 60- and 70-degree Christmases, I know all about the perfect Christmas: my family, maybe like some of yours, had me running around cleaning and decorating up to the very last minute. My family also has a series of nativity scenes around the house. I would stop and stare at them from time to time as a kid, mentally comprehending that this was a stable scene and knowing full well the story we just read from Luke — Southern Baptist kids do know their Bibles, after all — but somehow it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the irony of making everything shiny and perfect on a holiday celebrating a birth that might well have happened with actual livestock present.
A birth where Mary and Joseph alone, with no family, are present — at least until some field hands show up. Unlike most babies, there’s no grandma or grandpa or aunts or uncles or, you know, doctor or midwife, there to welcome Jesus when he’s born: just some laborers from the next field over.
A colleague of mine describes how it’s been occurring to her lately that it’s not just that God was born into a mess — it’s that God kind of made a mess when Jesus was born. The ideal birth for the son of God would be, and in the lore of many cultures has been, a birth among the rich in a palace fit for a god. It seems reasonable, after all, that the son of God should want for nothing.
Instead, our God is born to an unwed young mother who is engaged to a man who initially freaked out — as a man is wont to do when his fiancé turns up pregnant and it’s not his kid — until he’s made okay with the whole thing literally by divine intervention. They’re not rich. Joseph, the aforementioned fiancé, is a humble carpenter who, thanks to the aforementioned divine intervention, decides not to abandon his mysteriously pregnant fiancé.
You’d think that’d be the end, right? Like all that drama should be the end of fate messing with these poor people. But no. Then, when she’s as pregnant as pregnant ladies can be, they have to go and register in the town of their family’s origin, because you see, this is an occupied land. So a very pregnant Mary walks with Joseph from Nazareth to the town where Joseph’s family is from: Bethlehem.
I know, you’ve probably heard that before and thought it sounded inconvenient and uncomfortable, but most us know that Israel-Palestine is a relatively small area of the world.
Well, yes, kind of like Massachusetts is a small state.
Now, consider that Mary’s walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem is roughly equivalent to traveling on foot from here to Boston. While very, very pregnant. We usually see Mary riding on a camel in depictions but chances are, they were not rich enough to afford such luxuries. There is no camel mentioned in the Bible.
They do those cross walks every year, where people carry the cross around Good Friday — but the biblical scene I want to see depicted in real life is a bunch of people walking with those fake baby bellies from here to Boston.
That’s not all, either. When they finally arrive, Mary’s in labor, but this isn’t the age of 24 hour emergency rooms and they cannot even find a hotel room anywhere, because people are crowding in to Bethlehem, trying to register like their forcefully occupying nation, Rome, told them to. So they end up in some structure for livestock. We know it was for livestock because it had a manger — commonly called a feeding trough — and that is where the Son of God is born, alone with Mary and Joseph, likely with livestock noises or at last smells all around.
At some point, Mary and Joseph had to assume that they’d just imagined the whole Son of God thing. Because all of this, all of this, was a hectic, messy, smelly debacle. Surely God wouldn’t send God’s only son into this mess.
Naturally, though, just as they’re contemplating that, they find out that’s not the end of the weirdness for Mary and Joseph and their new son. They’re alone with the baby until random strangers — shepherds, seen as stinky laborers who were widely looked down upon by everyone else — they show up, bewildered, saying something about an angel speaking to them and telling them to come find them. Because that’s exactly what any woman who has just given birth wants to see: random strangers against whom they might harbor negative stereotypes describing visions of angels speaking to them.
So, to recap: this is the holiday where everything’s supposed to be perfect and everyone’s supposed to be well-behaved?
It turns out that, whether it’s a baby being born in a barn or your relatives fighting or the the Christmas ham getting hopelessly burned — if Christmas is indeed about love, we would do well to remember that love is messy and usually nothing close to perfect.
Love is here — and love is messy, especially where humans are involved. And the Good News is that Jesus still shows up in the midst of the whole mess. In fact, for love, God isn’t above making a huge mess to get to us.
God always shows up. There is no Christmas where Jesus doesn’t get born. Even if you have nowhere else to go tonight but you got yourself here: love is here for you too. God is here for you too.
Here, where we always gather and God always shows up, in bread and wine and people.
This morning, I described the end of Advent like waiting at the arrivals gate for a loved one to show up. You scan face after face, looking for the one you love, and finally, they arrive. In the same way, we come here looking for love, and God always shows up in bread and wine and people. It isn’t perfect, and over the centuries it’s sometimes been downright ugly, but it always happens, in churches all around the world. And God always shows up at the gate, waiting to greet us, even when everything’s a mess. Always.
In an age when we’re all weary from the 24 hour news cycle that moves too fast for any one person to keep up, in an age when we’re all a little scared and tired and defensive, the opening monologue from Love, Actually has never rung more true for me:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends…If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” (2)
Love is messy, but it’s here. Love actually is all around. And in this weary world, all any of us can really say once we recognize it is to send that love right back to everyone around us, and say — thank God.
And when folks misbehave this holiday, just ask: what were you, born in a barn?
‘Cause Jesus, apparently, was. Amen.
1. Black Art Depot
2. Love, Actually (movie, 2003)