Would you like to hold the baby? See how small he is, not even old enough to hold up his own head, needing his mother and father’s love for absolutely everything. And we Christians dare to believe that God, the maker of heaven and earth and everything that is, chose to come into this world, just like this – a helpless newborn baby, born in a stall for animals, in his first week of life to become a refugee. God chose to put Godself into human hands, into our hands. “Away in a manger” we sing. I seriously doubt that the baby Jesus made “no crying” as the carol goes. The cry of a newborn is a very penetrating sound; it gets your attention more than just about anything else. So when the Book of Hebrews says, “God has spoken to us by a son,” God definitely got our attention…not so much a speaking as a shout: Here I am! I have arrived! Pay attention!”
Something else we sing – or heard sung in every shop and car radio- at Christmas is about a whole different kind of Christmas visitor: “He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” You know who I mean, right? Have you ever thought how deeply frightening that verse is? To be a little kid, hoping for Santa’s magical arrival by reindeer sleigh bringing lots of gifts, but pausing on the rooftop, pulling his iPad from his mitten and scrolling through to see whether you have been sufficiently nice, or maybe just a bit too naughty, to warrant a visit? This story seems designed to extort good behavior out of over-excited children at the holidays: which will it be, legos or a lump of coal? Depends how good you have been!
I want to declare firmly to you that God is NOTHING like this Santa guy in the song. God does not keep a ledger with columns to check off the good and the bad deeds, though God knows all of it. And the song says: You’d better watch out you’d better not cry, you’d better not pout….What sort of God, what sort of Santa, for that matter would cross us off the list if we were to have cried over the past year, or even pouted a bit? Heavean knows the world deserves our tears at times. God comes into the world as a baby to remind us that our whole human story, our whole life from cradle to grave including a good bit of messing up, pouting, and crying (yes, the Bible tells us flat out that Jesus cried!), all of it is being gathered into the divine love the way the baby is gathered into his mother’s arms. Our naughtiness is just what God comes to redeem and mend, comes to forgive. Herod’s naughtiness, Pilate’s naughtiness, Roman soldiers’ naughtiness with hammer and nails, Judas’ naughtiness, religious bigwigs’ naughtiness, Peter’s doubting naughtiness, all of that and ours, too. It is all fixable, thanks to God’s astonishing grace and mercy and love.
At this table, week by week, we are fed in the mystery of God's coming near us in the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood...the body of the material world and flesh hallowed by God's Spirit within it, the blood of reconciliation poured out for us which makes the deserts of our hearts bloom as though they are watered by spring rains of living water. God wants to come near us. There is no evil that we may have done, no violence in us, no desire we may carry to push God away out of our world, that if we will not bring it here to lay it down at the feet of the Holy Child, will keep God from drawing us to God's own heart. There is no doubt or disbelief, no old anger or remorse, that if we will not bring it as our poor and shabby gift for the Holy Child on this night, will keep us from being lifted up and transformed into holy people, heirs in hope of eternal life. Because, here’s the thing: it’s already done! Salvation has happened, not just for me and you but for the whole world.
As you come to the table to be fed with and by Christ tonight, and return to your place by way of the crêche, leave the gift of your heart there. Remember that the birthplace of God is in reality no glittery and tinseled space, it is the warmth of skin against skin in the winter darkness; it is the holy silence where angels have previously sung; it is our own poorly furnished place of longing, into which Christmas hope is born. There, God has come and is coming near you.
You will make this journey your whole life. The landscape will be stony and obscure. You may begin to doubt your memories of the angels, and wonder when the peace of which they spoke will flow across the earth. You will keep coming to Bethlehem, to the House of Bread (as it is in Hebrew), to see this thing which has happened, which God has made known to you, which God will keep making known to you. The faces of these fellow-travelers will cheer you, remind you, help you to believe that it is true: God has come near us: God-with-us. Emmanuel. Alleluia!