Christmas Eve Sermon based on Luke 2
St. Francis of Assisi, is credited with staging the first one in 1223, so I wonder what would he thinking regarding the countless types and styles we have created in the 21st century? Not only do innumerable churches across North America stage live nativity scenes, but Mary and Joseph are an integral part of the Posada, the traditional Mexican and Central American nighttime journey to a find a place for the pregnant Mary. But, I also wonder how St. Francis would feel about the limitless other versions of the nativity, those souvenir commercial options fueled from that first crèche. What would St. Francis think of a crèche with kittens as Mary, Joseph and Jesus, or the craft version we can make out of large marshmallows and toothpicks.
According to the first biographer of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, a contemporary of Francis, and the St. Bonaventure’s biography that followed, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a live manger with hay and two animals --- an ox and an ass--- in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. St. Francis according to tradition then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.”
While it is not completely clear that St. Francis originated the idea of the live nativity, this annual staging blossomed in early, medieval Europe. Historian point out that Francis' display, came in the middle of a period when mystery or miracle plays were a popular form of entertainment and education for European laypeople. These plays, originally performed in churches and later performed in town squares, re-enacted Bible stories in vernacular languages. Since church services at the time were performed only in Latin --- which very few understood --- miracle plays were an important way for laypeople to learn scripture.
So, while St. Francis could not have predicted a yellow rubber duck version of the nativity, nevertheless he was trying to get across an important message. One to which we struggle to understand in our 21st century. It is not just a message of a teenage mother, a father with few details, rather it is the incredible message of a human yet God, born in roughest of circumstances.
The obvious struggle is stable story. It is not exactly the kind of place we would want to have a baby and not the kind of crib we would have chosen. We would much prefer the hospital to a cave. We'd rather hear the controlled voice of a doctor, obstetrician, midwife or nurse practitioner than a cacophony of cows mooing, sheep baaing and goats grunting. We'd much prefer a story with a climate-controlled room with a sanitized bassinet than a cattle trough than the one the author of Luke that was likely made of stone, chiseled in the floor, and filled with hay, manure and who knows what else.
Furthermore, in our sanitized 21st century versions, we avoid the fact that having babies has always been a risky business, not only for the child but for the mother as well. The crib as we know it wasn't invented until the 1800s. Before then, infants generally slept with their mothers, which we now know can be dangerous.
Yet, even with all the modern safety improvements we've made, giving birth is still a risky business. Texas, for example, has the highest maternal mortality rate in the US and the US has the highest rate in the developed world. But it was even riskier in the first century. It was a dangerous situation, much more so than we can imagine given our propensity to put troll doll images into the nativity rather than seeing it for what it was --- dangerous.
The irony of this message is however, even if the manger itself was a dangerous situation, even if Mary had more than a 50/50 chance of dying, that is not where the danger in the story lies, rather it is all about the leaky, burpy, vulnerable little baby wrapped in cloths lying within it! It's hard to think of a baby as dangerous --- a two-year-old, maybe, but not a newborn, but that was exactly what was being born. If the nativity had been an episode of the 1960s Lost in Space, the Robot would be telling the young star: “Danger, Will Robinson.” For just eight days after this birth, the old man Simeon would declare the truth at this little child’s dedication in the temple that this infant would be “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” And, he says to Mary, his mother, “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Those are ominous words about this eight-day old. Then again, this is a very particular baby who has some additional baggage for it was conceived by the Holy Spirit. As the angel had announced to Mary, this child “will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35). In John's gospel, he is “the Word” of God made flesh and who dwelled among us (John 1:14). This baby is God become human.
This is dangerous for two reasons: First, if Jesus is fully divine, fully God, then all other definitions of God are rendered questionable because we like to think of God as being, well, God -- and nothing else! Certainly not human. And, second, if Jesus is fully human, then all other definitions of true humanity are also dubious, because we do not want to burden ourselves with the knowledge that we could be better than we are.
Talk about dangerous! From the very beginning, people have tended to either dispense with gods, manufacture their own and have tended to see “being human” as limitless or limited. For example, we tend to like our gods to be “spiritual” and consign them to a distant sort of heaven where we can keep them at arm's length and not have them interfere with us very much. Likewise, we also tend to hold up our humanity as a default excuse for our brokenness, after all, we're “only human.”
Today, however, we have something else entirely! In this story of an infant Jesus born in a stable in a manager, we are told that God is not only real, God is not unknowable, distant and unconcerned with creation. Instead, we come to find out that the God who created the universe is intimately involved in creation to the point of coming to walk among one infinitesimal sliver of creation one little person.
Talk about perilous because a God who becomes human is a God who must be reckoned with, and that makes this baby dangerous to the way the world normally works. We cannot consign God to heaven alone because God has come to earth. We cannot push God aside as a figment of our imagination, because in this story to which St. Francis wanted acted out for village’s, God has come with a human face.
This is a risky maneuver for God is a God who has entered fully into the human mess, living in poverty, living as a refugee and living with people who have major issues. Moreover, it doesn’t end here in this stable, for when Jesus ages, Jesus begins associating with outcasts, along with the poor, the sick and the broken.
“Danger, Will Robinson!” Jesus provides a human face to a God who calls us to follow him, be like him and do as Jesus does. Jesus provides a human face to a God who has come not only to live but to die for the creation God created. Jesus provides a bedrock of philosophical, moral and ethical guidelines. These guidelines have repercussions for in believing in a God who becomes human not only does it gives a face to God, it also defines what it means to be fully human. In Genesis 1, God makes humans “in God’s own image” and calls this creation “very good.” This is not a skin deep, male, simplistic vision but a God pleased with an evolving creation, which reflects God's own being, character and love.
Therefore, when we go home this evening to a crèche on a bookcase, or drive by a plastic one lit up, remember this small bag of bones who survives. In that small bundle of miracle, we begin a journey in which Jesus showed us what that life was to be like. Jesus revealed what it meant to be fully human and, at the same time, fully indwelt and was one with the Divine into and through death. Jesus isn't merely a perfect icon to admire but an example to follow in how to fully engage one's capacity for relationship with God.
Mary and Joseph survived albeit having to shortly run off as refugees, Jesus survived this beginning as a helpless dependent bundle of flesh. For out of this story of a manger-laid bundle Jesus would one day be dangled above a city street --- not as sterile painted, nativity scene for sale --- but on a cross. Because what began in a manager led to a cross, where we are reconciled to God, given the light of God's Spirit dwelling, to be lived out in our fully human lives reflecting and holding together both the human and the Divine.
This is what began that fateful night in this story, with a man, woman and child. This is both the danger and the opportunity represented in the manger. St. Francis had it right, the nativity is a game changer! Amen.