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The Christmas Story, and Our Story: Christmas Eve 2023

Sunday, December 24, 2023 (night):
Luke 2:1-14

As we break open the scriptures, may God be among us; light in the midst of us; bringing us to light and life. Amen.

The observance and celebration of Christmas is a bit different for everyone, and different from era to era, and place to place. It’s a whole bunch of different pieces that get put together and then wrapped up as a single package, wrapped up in a bow.

For Christians it’s one of the biggest feasts of the Church year: a celebration of the Incarnation (God taking flesh and becoming one of us). For others it’s a seasonal festival, about snow, pine trees, and cross country skiing. For others it’s about family; sending cards and getting together. And there are our own little traditions: maybe you go on a Christmas ramble. Or go look at the lights. Or watch your favourite movie, whether Home Alone, Rudolph, or increasingly for many, Die Hard.

And of course, the reigning power and interpretation of Christmas in our day and the last several generations is materialism and commercialism. And there’s some tension, because even if we’re critical of the Santa Claus industry, part of us might also enjoy getting gifts for loved ones. (Or the “one for them, one for me” approach to Christmas shopping that I find hard to resist.) When I think of my childhood Christmases I can’t help but think of (and this is still the case for many today), Star Wars, and its whole universe of toys, apparel, and dolls. For many years Star Wars was the reason for the (commercial) Christmas season.

You might have actually heard of how back when Star Wars was first released, it was not just a huge hit, but it was a surprisingly huge hit. Hollywood had dismissed it as a pulpy B-movie for nerds. They didn’t realize it would become a cultural phenomenon. So when the relatively small toy company Kenner got the rights to make the toys (because other, bigger companies didn’t care), they got in a pickle when they couldn’t keep up with production; it was way more popular than they ever fathomed. In a stroke of risky genius, under the Christmas tree for thousands and thousands of children was an empty box. Basically an IOU that said “sorry about this empty box, but mail in this card, and as soon as they’re ready, we’ll send you action figures to put in the box: Luke, Leia, Chewbaccca, and R2-D2.”
And kids sent in that card, and months later they actually got their toys. And the rest is history. Materialistic, capitalist, history.

But that’s where we might actually find a surpising ray of grace in our world’s often fallen or problematic approach to Christmas. A film critic, in conversation with Star Wars’ creator, George Lucas, once remarked that the ‘space opera’ genre of science fiction just wasn’t for him. Maybe it was generational, or something else, but he just couldn’t get into the movies. Lucas took this in stride, and actually brought up those ever-present action figures. He said: ‘it was never about my stories and my movies. I just wanted to provide a starting point for people to take up those same characters [with the action figures] and create their own stories.’ Star Wars, then, wasn’t about what was on the screen, but about our own imaginations.

George Lucas knew the power of story. And at Christmas are faced with one of the great stories from our compilation of scriptures called The Bible. It’s part of a longer story that begins with the author stating that they’re endeavouring to put in writing “an orderly account” for the reader. In other words, they’ve received all sorts of teachings, guidelines, reminiscences, and quotations, but the author sees the importance of putting all this into an intelligible, exciting, dramatic, story. Because the story on the page (or on the screen) takes root in our heads.

You might have been struck at how quickly those fourteen short verses from Luke 2 went by; about 45 to 60 seconds of reading. But in our heads, it’s so much longer. Because the brevity of the story calls us (like kids with their dolls or action figures) to fill in the gaps ourselves. Our reactions, our experiences, our needs, our knowledge (or lack of knowledge) call us to fill in those gaps; to wonder; to ask questions; to get inside the heads and step into the shoes (or sandals) of the characters.

And we can do this alone, internally. Chewing on the story. But we can also do it together, communally. Where my reflection, and yours, and your neighbour’s rub up against each other, and enrich and challenge what we’ve brought to it. This year we specially hold in our hearts those in the land of Jesus’s birth. We ask how they are hearing the story of the census; the difficulty in finding shelter; or turning to Matthew’s Gospel: to the threat of those who, like King Herod, wield great power; and the need for finding escape to a safer place.)

As we observe and celebrate Christmas and hear these stories anew we are given the opportunity for the Biblical story (the community of faith’s story; God’s story) to come alongside our own story. You might be surprised at how the world of 2000 years ago and the world of today can connect.

Think of how the Gospel-writer begins by announcing a census. The first characters named are Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Whether or not this census lines up with the one that occurred in 6 AD is beside the point that the writer is saying that this story takes place not in some science fiction or fantasy realm, but in our world of bureaucracy, numbers, power, and privilege (and the opposite). This census is not just information for information’s sake. It’s about taxation; about the already-wealthy accumulating more, to keep their machine going. ‘THAT,’ the narrator implies, is the world that Jesus was born into.

The original characters and the first readers would have known Augustus and his like. Styled as “Prince of Peace,” and “Son of God,” the narrator is subtly subverting and questioning these titles. Those of us who know the fuller story will recognize that the real Prince of Peace and Son of God is not found in the ivory tower, but in a lowly cattle shed. And maybe there is a lesson for us and our world in that.

Then as the story progresses we zoom in to Mary and Joseph. Two ordinary, struggling people who are subject to the whims of the powerful and sent on a journey that is largely out of their control. Maybe you know something about being forced out of your comfort zone, and the security of familiar surroundings and supports. Something about carrying a great risk with you. Something about the fragility of life. Those of us raised around ceramic Precious Moments figures will have to remind ourselves that birth in those days (and in many places, in our own day), was an often dangerous, life-and-death situation.

And imagine going into labour in an unfamiliar setting. For years our nativity plays made much of the assumed character of the nasty innkeeper, who has no room for Jesus, like our world has no room for him either. And yet more recent scholars have pointed out the word for ‘inn’ here is the same word that’s later used for the room for the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples: an upper room, a dining, or guest room. So the implication shifts somewhat, from an inhospitable innkeeper to a much more hospitable family (perhaps the extended family of Joseph) who didn’t have room on the mezzanine, but who could do their best to create a comfortable space on the ground floor. Maybe in a room shared with or adjacent to the animals. So the theological or personal lesson here might not be so much that Jesus is refused room, but instead that many of us simply struggle to find the perfect place for God in our lives. We are confronted by this person of Jesus, but we’re not quite sure how to fit him into our already crammed and ordered lives. But, imperfectly, we do our best.

And then the scene shifts to the outskirts of town, “while shepherds watched their flocks by night.” We started with the powerful rulers, but as the story deepens we’re going more and more into the margins. These are people — and we think of those tonight — “who work while others sleep.” Rustic people, who might not always get the respect they deserve. But so often they’re the ones that provide food for the stores. Or put the human hours into volunteering. The story subtly reminds us to respect the dignity of every human being; not just the respectable, the sophisticated, the elites.

The shepherds are given a revelation: the appearance of an angel announcing that things in their world are going to change. We might not see angels everyday, but maybe in our own personal stories we can recall times when we’ve gotten news that signals a big change. It might bring promise. Or it might bring fear. But the angel’s message here is comfort, reassurance, and good news. Peace to a world that’s so often in the throes of hate, rivalry, and tribalism.

How nice it would’ve been for the angels to have snapped their fingers and just institute a reign of peace, lasting peace for all ages. But maybe forcing even a good thing is in itself an act of just that: force, not peace. And so born to us is indeed a Saviour, the true Prince of Peace. But he comes to us not with the might of Caesar, but with the vulnerability of a child. A child represents pure potential, and the beginnings of a new story that can go in all sorts of directions. And the characters in our story, but also we, ourselves, are called to nurture and tend to this child in a way that will make for peace, real peace: in our lives and in our world. And this will take attention, work, and commitment. And the hands of many.

This is the story we’ve been given. It’s that child’s story; Jesus’s story. It’s also the Church’s story. And it can be your story, too. Part of the wider story of God in relationship with humanity. The push, pull, and wrestling between the cosmic God and a small, underdog, fallible people. A community would eventually be formed around the story of this God coming right into the fragility and intimacy of the human story: God-with-us; God made flesh. So take time, and create the space for your story to grow into and connect with this Christmas story.

Jesus, the narrator shared, was born in David’s city, Bethlehem. “Bethlehem,” translated, means “house of bread.” One way in which we connect to one another, and connect our stories to God’s story, is through the bread of the eucharist (communion); a family meal (something we probably connect to Christmas). That and other practices of the Church. Food to sustain us in our often perilous lives of faith.

But we might also think of the story, the scripture, itself as the bread we feed on. Chew on the story and its implications. We’re nourished by the story. We feed on the story by faith, with thanksgiving.*

I share a short poem by a writer and teacher from the Church of England, Paula Gooder:

The birth of a baby is
wonderful and terrifying;
terrible and beautiful

A baby is born
through pain and with joy;
with love and through fear

The birth of a baby is
precarious and marvellous;
mysterious and gritty

A baby is born
with screams of agony;
and shouts of delight

At the moment of birth
death and life greet each other

The birth of that baby was no different;
poised between life and death, God came to us
a tiny human form, with immense stature. **

Jesus lived as one of us, died as one of us, and shared our joys and our pains. It’s a very human story. (It’s the human story.) And a divine story. Yours, and mine. Our story.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* James Jones, “The first Christian assembly” in News of Great Joy: The Church Times Christmas Collection (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2021), 58.

** Journey to the Manger: Exploring the Birth of Jesus (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2015), 115.