I love Christmas Eve… as a child of the North, I love the warmth amidst the often-bitter cold. I love the soft yellow light of candles and Christmas trees illuminated after a 4 pm sunset. I love the stars that shine even amidst the light pollution of the city—as if they are announcing their brilliance that no mere human-made lamp post can obscure. I love the depth of quiet that envelopes me when I walk in the snow by Minnehaha Creek. And I love the story that we read, year after year after year. Joseph and Mary and the donkey. The Wise Ones traveling from the East, the shepherds keeping watch over their sheep. Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. There is a softness to it all that is deeply soothing and peaceful.
But even as I love the soothing and peaceful aspects of the story, some part of me knows that the story hasn’t always been told honestly… or fully.
For all of us who have either given birth or journeyed with a partner or friend who has, we might challenge the beatific version of a Mary clad in baby blue. Giving birth is dangerous and it is painful. Giving birth is messy and vulnerable and not for the faint of heart. And it can take hours and sometimes days. I literally cannot imagine what it would have been like to walk for over a hundred miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem while I was nine months pregnant. And to have done so because of an order sent from the occupying military forces—there was no turning back.
I also cannot quite imagine what it was like to arrive in Bethlehem exhausted to the point of bone-weariness and not have a safe place to sleep, let alone to give birth. (I remember the pain and fear I felt, even as I was excited, as Maggie drove me to the hospital the night Shannon was born. To have begun contractions and to be unsheltered and alone… I can’t even wrap my mind around it… But Isabel can. She is the Salvadoran woman who fled her home after the threats from the gang had come to her teenage daughter: either her daughter must join the gang or she would be killed. They had been without options. So, seven months pregnant, Isabel gathered her three other children and began the 2300 mile journey north, through Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico. They walked, they clung to the tops of trains, they found occasional rides—amidst all kinds of weather.
When Isabel made it to Tucson and finally collapsed into the arms of the shelter volunteers, she likely had some idea of what Mary and Joseph felt when they collapsed into the straw in the barn.
But then Mary went into labor. How long did they last? Did Joseph go for help? Did Mary call out for Elizabeth or her mother? Were any of the shepherds there to help with the birth, accustomed as they were with aiding in the process?
We don’t actually know all the details of Jesus’ birth. And the story we read each year leaves out a lot. Is it actually soothing and peaceful? Is it soft?
We are gathered this night on one of the longest nights of the year. We are gathered this night amidst personal and political tragedies. Some of our beloveds have died, some are failing. Some of our deepest- held beliefs are assaulted on a daily basis.
It is a difficult time. Many have commented that it feels like one of the most difficult years in recent memory. And it certainly feels that way to me.
But I have to tell you that I believe it is precisely into difficulty that the Christ child is born. It is precisely into spaces of betrayal, of oppression, of pain, that God came to us, and comes to us, over and over again.
The Christmas story isn’t about baby blue-clad, domesticated, clean, perfect beatific people—because those people don’t exist and the Christmas story is for real people with real lives. Instead, the real story of Christmas is of God’s palpable, powerful answers to all the hatred, violence and pain that we both perpetrate and fall prey to. Sacred vulnerability, embodied desire for relationship, a little brown baby born to poor parents amidst occupation—this Emmanuel is God’s gift of love.
That’s the thing about the story… even as it has been domesticated—it isn’t the domesticated part that actually soothes and heals or brings genuine peace. In fact, by telling the story with the real parts put back in, the miracle of God-With-Us, the un-believe-ability of Emmanuel is even more powerful. Somehow, amidst all the chaos and the pain, all the colonization and oppression, God continues to say yes to us. God continues to look upon us and choose to be made known in our lives.
Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist and leader who works with Rev. Dr. William Barber shared this prayer with worshipers gathered to honor the incarnation of justice.
“The future is dark. But my faith dares me to ask: What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave? What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future? Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”…”
On this Christmas night, in these desperate times, Emmanuel, God who is with us and yet still waiting to be born asks us to breathe and push.
Rejoice, for unto us a child is born… A light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, nor will it ever, overcome it. Amen.