My first thought when I read this text this year, was “No, don’t go, Mary and Joseph! Don’t go, shepherds! Shelter in place!” My friends, it has been a strange year. That phrase, “shelter in place,” didn’t even exist in our shared imagination last Christmas Eve.
And yet here we are, huddled in our own homes instead of getting to come together like the shepherds did to glorify the sweetness of God born among and within us again. I love preaching in my sweatpants and slippers, but I would trade them in a heartbeat if it meant I got to sing together with you all like the angels, hear Mary Lewis over my shoulder singing a descant. I would trade the mute button on zoom that makes ending the passing of the peace satisfyingly easy for an introvert to have a holy handshake, an awkward hug, an unscheduled side conversation impossible in zoomland.
We are alone together tonight because that is how we love each other well right now. We are grieving the kind of holiday and the kind of every day we cannot have right now. And we are anticipating a new world since today’s wise people have been chasing the star of a vaccine across an impossible distance at an unprecedented speed. Here we are in the in-between, in the holy darkness.
I have the strange job of talking about my own fumbling for the Holy in the dark in hopes it might reveal something for you too. And because I became a mom this year again, my story is about the God born all over again at each birth, not just at Christmas. These are some lessons I’ve learned from Her:
Lesson 1: God saves us not by Her power, but by Her presence. In Jesus’ time, the emperor was known as the Savior. The emperor was said to save the people by the power of his army, the power of his wealth made from plunder, the power of his majesty to instill fear in his enemies. That’s why when the angels sang glory to baby Jesus their Savior, their song was a liberation song. It was both treason and heresy when the shepherds joined in. Together, they were turning the world upside down.
My world got turned upside down this summer by another tiny baby with a big holy presence, like all babies freshly arrived from eternity. Powerless by the world’s standards, her presence has saved me too. Not as a one and done salvation from pathological sin, as the popular theology goes. I don’t believe in that. This baby’s presence has saved me from smallness instead – over and over again. From the smallness of my perception my body’s strength. From the smallness of how much I thought I could love. From the smallness of self-reliance. From the smallness of cynicism. In her open-hearted presence, by her unabashed need, with her thick thighs after months of struggle to eat, in her full-body giggles and milky smell, I recover my sense of awe. And I believe this kind of salvation as awe, as healing, as empowering, as interdependence writ large is the way we make God’s world possible here and now.
To what smallness have you ceded your power, maybe without even realizing? In whose holy presence might you recover yourself and your wonder this Christmas?
Lesson 2: God loves the softest parts of us. Anyone who has carried a baby in their body knows that bodies make room for life to grow. And that room doesn’t just go away when a baby is born. There is always room in the body’s inn, so to speak. We don’t talk about it much. Especially from the pulpit. But these parts of me that are roomier, that are softer, are the parts that my baby loves the most. They are the parts that feed her and give her rest, that calm her when tears overwhelm her. God loves and needs the softest parts of us.
What parts of you have been made soft, tender or a little roomier by this year of life like no other any of us has ever experienced? What parts of you have you been told you shouldn’t like or talk about? Could these parts of your body, of your life story, be parts that maybe God might actually love and need to be born into and grow in this world?
Lesson 3: God makes Herself irresistible to us. I have never in my life been as tired as I’ve been this year. When the baby is sleeping, my work or the older sweet child beckon. I have thanked God regularly for the precious cocktail of hormones and irresistible cuteness. It’s a cliché, but tiny fingers are practically edible. In a divinely new baby, God makes Herself irresistible to us. This is grace and gift beyond measure.
The question becomes this: how do we remember that irresistible gorgeousness of the holy baby’s tiny fingers still within bigger hands – hands that look different than our own, hands that are holding the bars of cages we call detention centers, hands with skin thinned from age and knobby with life’s lessons longing for touch after months and months of isolation?
As Toni Cade Bambara said, “It is the artist’s job is to make revolution irresistible.” Every Christmas, God is the ultimate artist, making the revolution irresistible in a baby named Jesus, a brown baby born under occupation to teenage, unwed parents. Each Christmas we tell the story so that we might remember God is within each and every body, waiting for us to be co-creators of a masterpiece by loving Her like we love tiny fingers so instinctively.
May it be so.