Here we are, gathered once again in our Christmas finest, to hear the story of the birth of a baby—the child of Mary, the child of God. The air feels particularly alive—a hum of excitement in the background, as if we are seeing and hearing right through the thin veil that, as the Celts say, separates heaven and earth. The notes of our hymns and carols hanging in the air. Carols of sweetness and light. Carols about the serene scene at the manger; a beatific Mary sitting holding the child with a glowing halo on his head—Joseph standing by, the unruffled sentinel, and a bevy of animals bowing in silence to this holiest of families. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love these carols, like Silent Night where apparently all at a birth in a stable is calm, but that carol was clearly written by a man. Because as a woman who has given birth twice, and as a former midwife who was witness to thousands of births, actual birth is a lot of things, but it is not silent. Not calm. I cannot think of a single birth that progressed without expressions of pain, fear, anxiety on the part of the mother and whimpers or howls of indignation on the part of the baby who suddenly goes from a place of warmth and peace where every single need is immediately met, to the cold light of this world.
And perhaps this year the world feels even a little colder than usual for many of us. Despite the fact that we have just past the longest night, somehow the light feels a bit more distant for many of us. Rather than crackling with excitement the air outside seems to crackle with anxiety and fear. I perceive a sense of hopelessness lying under the anger and cynicism that is part of our public discourse. We are more divided as a nation than we have been in my lifetime. Racism, misogyny, transphobia and homophobia are raising their ugly heads and walking around in full daylight. Many of us are facing a first Christmas without a loved one, without a job, with a new and frightening diagnosis, or unable to go home. The climate crisis is clearly upon us. Tension between nations is on the rise.. Far from living in a perfect, serene world we are living in an imperfect one that seems to be spinning out of control. And more and more I find myself praying, I hear others praying, for God to fix this, or at least to transport us from here to somewhere more…holy….more….perfect.
But taking the really long view, this sense of an imperfect world that seems to be spinning out of control, filled with fear, is not new. It is woven through human history, and it is definitely woven through the Biblical stories. It is true that in the beginning all was calm and bright, perfect. God created a beautiful planet complete with everything we need, especially each other. But before you could say, pass the fruit basket, we were off doing our own thing. And the perfect world God created slipped away from us. We found ourselves East of Eden. But, remarkably, God did not turn to the angels and say, “dang, well, that whole human project didn’t work out so well, let’s end it and focus on squid this time”. No, God, stayed and stays with us. God kept trying: through the guidelines for life given on stone tablets to Moses, through prophet after prophet speaking God’s word to help us live full, complete, God infused, lives. And finally, when none of that seemed to work, God took a deep breath, collected the Holy Self, and took the ultimate risk, giving not just tablets, or prophets, but giving Godself. Not as a conquering hero come down to clean things up in one fell swoop or sweep us off to a more perfect world, but as a vulnerable baby. 7 lbs of human flesh—completely dependent on others. Born in a backwater to a couple of nobodies who, towards the end of Mary’s pregnancy, were forced to travel to be registered by the Roman occupiers. Born, to a young first time mother filled with fear over what would happen, what it would feel like. With Joseph standing by wondering what the heck he had gotten into. A child born not in a home surrounded by birth attendants, but in a cave, surrounded by animals who were likely unimpressed with the whole scene.
This, this is how God chose to enter our world. The God who created all there is, becoming one of us—vulnerable to all the pain, the diseases, the fear, of this world. Born literally in the middle of a mess. And this is why I want to push back on the carols of perfection, the Norman Rockwell nativity scene. Because the awesome good news of tonight is that God chose not perfection but reality. God chose us—you and me—chose to join us in the real world. In a messy, mixed existence. God became flesh—our flesh. The hopes and fears of all the years met in this baby and found very much here, in our reality. The hope of Christmas is that no matter what our world looks like, no matter what we are experiencing God is with us. We who are fearful, lonely, anxious, doubting, messy. God is with us. Despite the fact that God had to know there was a high likelihood that we would not be able to cope with perfect vulnerable love and that this baby would grow up to suffer and die—executed by the state as a criminal. Despite that, God entered the world once and for all—a meeting of humanity and divinity that infuses this imperfect world with holiness and scatters seeds of subversive love. The divine eternally present in our midst, in us.
On that first Christmas Eve and today it is God-With-Us. Not God-Up-There somewhere who answers our prayers by lifting us out of this messy world, out of our lives, but the God who comes to us in the midst of them—however far from home we are, however less than ideal our circumstances, however much or little our lives reflect the Christmas carols we sing. That is where God is born, in any cradle we will offer, on any pile of straw we will pat together with our hands.
Any of us who have prayed to be transported to God’s presence this Christmas will get their wish. Only not in the way we likely imagined. Because the opening in the veil between worlds opens only one way tonight—from heaven to earth. Because tonight, every night, for all eternity, God is in the midst of this world, in the midst of us, still seeking new flesh in which to be born. Perfect God seeking a home in our imperfectly wonderful arms and lives.