The birth of Jesus, according to Luke, the 2nd chapter.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
There are many worship experiences that stand out in my memory, including past Christmas Eves in this very room. But I’d like to share one service in particular that I’ve thought a lot about this year. Unlike tonight, there were only a few dozen worshippers in that service, and we gathered together in a tight circle, some sitting on chairs and most sitting directly on the wooden floor. Ranging in age from 12 to 60, each one of us held a lit candle in one hand to illuminate the pages of the worship book in the other hand. Though we did sing “Silent Night” to close worship, it wasn’t a Christmas Eve service. It was July at Camp Christikon in Montana, where I had traveled with nine amazing Holy Trinity students and two equally amazing adult leaders. We worshiped together many times during that trip, but on that evening we closed the day with a service of compline, using worn copies of an old green hymnal called the Lutheran Book of Worship.
At one point, the camp director and leader of the service paused a moment and commented that he believed there was nothing quite as beautiful as the human face lit by candlelight. “Look around at one another,” he said. We did. And after a bit of silence, he said, “Perhaps you will see the very face of Christ.” And we did.
Where do you see the face of Christ? It may be in any number of people—in friends and strangers, people in need and with blessings to share, loved ones and enemies. Perhaps the simplest way of saying it is that Christ may be seen in the people who come into your life in any given moment.
Christ is present among us. It’s a simple idea, but like many spiritual truths it is at once ordinary and rich with meaning, with the potential for a lifetime of contemplation. The living Christ is not confined to a book or to churches and other holy places but is found in the everyday world, right where we live each day.
I think the reason I have thought of that service at camp so often since July is because this message is so easy to forget. We rarely have the time to pause and look and be reminded of Christ’s presence among us. Especially at Christmas time, when many of us come to worship nearly exhausted by the preparations of meals and presents and programs and parties, there is little time, it seems, to contemplate spiritual matters. And not only that, but we may bring with us into our Christmas worship various burdens. Grief, sorrow, weariness, worries. We have many things occupying our attention.
Poet Claudia Rankine describes an incident on a crowded and busy subway train. A man rushes through and bumps into a boy, knocking him to the ground. In our fast-paced world of hurry, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. But when he keeps on moving as if nothing had happened, the boy’s mother grabs his arms and asks him to acknowledge it. “Look at the boy and apologize,” she says. It is another occasion when a person in a rush did not see another human being who was right in front of him. Perhaps, Rankine supposes, he has “never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.” The boy is an “other” to him—another race, another class, another world apart. Why take the time to acknowledge such a boy? But then, the mother says, “The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of bodyguards…like newly found uncles and brothers.”
The mother and her son were not alone, though at first they might have felt it. There were others to accompany them, to stand up for them, to acknowledge the value of their lives, to see them even as family. If you had been there on that subway perhaps you would have seen the very face of Christ.
The Gospel story of Christmas reminds me of two truths this year. First, I’m reminded that life for God’s people has always been in motion. Before the birth of Jesus, Mary travels to see her cousin for support during an unexpected pregnancy. Then she and Joseph are interrupted in their preparations by a worldwide census and forced to make the trip to Bethlehem. Angels suddenly appear to shepherds who then run with haste to find the baby. Later, a star calls magi to the road as well. In all of this, there is little time for stillness and quiet contemplation.
But the second truth of Christmas is that it is in the midst of chaos and confusion and just plain busyness that God chooses to be revealed, that God comes near to us. We are not alone. We never will be because nothing can separate us from God’s love. Our lives are valued that much. When the Gospel tells us that Mary pondered all these things in her heart, I don’t think it was after life calmed down—I don’t think it ever really did for her. Instead, it was in the midst of such things that she recognized God’s presence for her and for the whole world.
God is present in our world today as well, and this why we sing joyful hymns of praise tonight. When we look around during our singing of “Silent Night” tonight, with candlelit faces, it is a little easier to remember that Christ is present among us, that God is present in us and in our neighbor. It is true. But the story of the first Christmas pushes us to recognize the presence of Christ not only in the still and peaceful moments but also in the moments of unrest…in the times of turbulence and change and uncertainty. We can look for the face of Christ in the real pain, sorrow, and rejection of our human experience. We can find Christ in one another, in lives and perspectives that are very different from our own. We can find Christ in our own lives, no matter how far we feel from perfect or from God. Because God was born in this world, we can find Christ in all of creation, especially its longing to be healed.
Christ is born in Bethlehem and among us today. Maybe we don’t always recognize Christ’s presence, but the good news for us is that Christ comes nonetheless, ready or not, with persistent love.
Madeleine L’Engle writes of this love in her poem, “First Coming:”
God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace.
God came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.
God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.
God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait
Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame God came, and God’s Light would not go out…
We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,
For to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!