Christmas has the ability to bring people together. Family members get on airplanes or in cars to come home for Christmas. People at work who don’t seem all that friendly most days suddenly seem warmer and happier. Strangers wish each other Merry Christmas while standing in line at Walmart or Meijer. People who normally don’t give a thought to helping others suddenly find themselves gathering funds and donating to families who are struggling. Office parties, social gatherings, nights out, it’s all part of Christmas.
Ever since I was a small boy, my favorite Christmas gathering has been at church. Just like the rest of the world, we Catholics started getting ready right after Thanksgiving, when we began preparing our hearts with the Scripture readings from Isaiah. We would spend weeks at school preparing special music for the choir concert and then for Midnight Mass. We took gifts to the church for families who didn’t have enough of life’s essentials. Eventually, the day arrived when the 20 foot Christmas trees were brought into the church and draped with tinsel, the poinsettias arrived and the high altar was decorated. The nativity scene was placed with care in front of the Altar of Sacrifice, exactly as we’ve done it here at Holy Redeemer.
Fast forward a few years, and here we are, you and me. We, too, have prepared. We’re ready. It’s Christmas Eve at Holy Redeemer. It’s Christmas Eve in Fort Wayne, and it’s Christmas Eve all over the world. So why is it we continue to do all this preparing and celebrating when so many are struggling, when violence and war continue as they always have, when young mothers continue to struggle to feed their babies? What difference has the birth of Christ made anyway? To quote the old carol, “What Child is this?”
Back in ancient times, our people knew to look for God in remote places. God was to be found on mountain tops or in the clouds or in desert wastelands. It seemed obvious that people who were successful in life, who seemed immune from suffering and poverty, were somehow blessed by God. The poor and destitute, on the other hand, must have done something to merit their situation. And if, for whatever reason, God were to manifest Himself in the world, he would surely prefer to be found among the rich and powerful, than among a bunch of losers.
For some, it is still an obstacle to their faith to consider that the God who created the universe would choose to manifest his design for planet earth through a humble working family in a tiny hillbilly town in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. So when we ask, “What child is this?” we are really asking, “What kind of God is this?”
The wonder of Christmas has everything to do with amazing gifts, shared meals, family and loved ones. But the greater wonder is a God who would for no rational reason choose to come and live among us, as if we were something special. A God who chose to be born to an unwed teenage mother. A God who came to bring each of us the message that we matter, that religious institutions do not have the last word in determining who is and who is not “worthy”. The wonder of Christmas has everything to do with a God who says that appearances don’t matter. Material worth doesn’t matter. Only love matters because it is the one thing that will remain even when we are gone.
A few years ago, some American educators were invited by the Russian Department of Education to teach young people a course in morality and ethics in the state run school system. Several of these teachers were placed at an orphanage where about 100 boys and girls were living, most of them having been abandoned or abused. None of them were considered likely to be adopted.
As Christmas approached, the teachers decided to tell the children the story of Joseph and Mary, the birth of the Baby Jesus. They related the details we know so well: the angels, the shepherds and the Magi. For most of the children, it was the first time they had heard the story. After they finished hearing the story, the young students were given simple craft materials so that each child could make his or her own nativity scene. They used three small pieces of cardboard to make a manger. They shredded yellow napkins to make straw, etc… A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt . As the orphans were busy making their nativity scenes, the teachers walked among them to see if any needed assistance.
All went well until one teacher came to the table where a young boy was working. Misha was about 6 years old and was just finishing his project. As the teacher looked at the little boy’s manger, he was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger. Quickly, he called for the translator to ask Misha why there were two babies in the manger. Misha crossed his arms in front of him and began to repeat the Christmas story. The teacher was amazed. For such a young boy, who had only heard the Christmas story once, Misha told the story with great care and detail until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger. Then Misha started to ad-lib. He made up his own ending to the story.
Misha said, “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I didn’t have any parents, so I don’t have a place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else. But I really wanted to stay with him, so I thought about what I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?” And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.” “So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him as long as I wanted.”
For many of us here tonight, we too know what it means to feel all alone. We know what it feels like to disappoint our parents’ expectations. We know what it feels like not to fit in or be loved for who we are. We know the feelings of shame from being told in a thousand little ways by our Church that we aren’t good enough. Tonight is our night. Tonight we remember the simple story of an unplanned pregnancy in the life a teenaged mother that resulted in God’s message to humanity some 2009 years ago. It is the same message to us in the here and now.
“What child is this?” we ask. This is the child who reveals himself to us in the stillness of our hearts, the child who reassures us that we are good enough, that God loves us no matter what, that we are great just the way we are. This is the child who sets us free from all our limitations and fears and gently guides us along the path to God. This is the child who, on a dark and chilly night when we feel most alone, tells us that keeping him warm will be the best gift ever, and we can stay by his side for as long as we want.