The gospel according to Luke, the second chapter:
1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 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.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.
When I visit new parents in the hospital or in their homes, they almost always ask me if I’d like to hold their beloved newborn. My answer is “yes,” of course. But I admit that I have some fear and trepidation every time they lift the child and place her in my arms. My apprehension arises out of an acute awareness that the baby I’m about to hold is, at least in that moment, the most important thing in the whole world.
I wonder if Mary, Joseph, and the field hands had similar feelings. Angels has warned them that this baby was above average, that this tiny thing had the power to save the world. Knowing what they knew, then, I wonder if Mary was tempted, like many of the mothers I know, to bubble wrap baby Jesus. I wonder if Joseph, like many new parents, held the baby with those awkwardly scrunched shoulders and tight arms. I wonder if the shepherds, when Jesus was lifted from the manger and placed against their scratchy tunics, had the sense they would have done almost anything to keep him from all harm his whole life long.
My mother tells a story of her first months of motherhood. She was home alone with my eldest brother, Bjorn. She bundled him up, and walked out to the end of the driveway to the mailbox. Just as she was reaching to open the mailbox, she slipped, Bjorn lurched, and before she knew it, he had fallen out of her arms onto the gravel road. My mother wept for the rest of day, believing herself to be the worst caregiver that had ever walked the earth. If she could have put him in an impenetrable snowsuit for the rest of his life, I’m certain she would have.
The business of love is hard. It makes us want to protect, at all costs, the objects of our affections, whether they be our children, our spouses, our parents, or our friends. But as much as we’d like to bubble wrap those we love, C. S. Lewis writes that “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything; and your heart will certainly be wrung; and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…it will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable…”[i]
In the story of the incarnation, God takes on the vulnerable, risky business of love. God opens her heart up to being wronged, even broken. In a rural town with rural people, God chooses to take on flesh for the sake of the whole world. This isn’t a bubble-wrapped baby or an impenetrable king. This is love incarnate. And all of us—Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, you and I—are tasked with learning how to hold such love when it’s placed in our arms.
Peter Marty, a pastor in Davenport, Iowa, writes about his wife Susan’s traumatic brain injury a few years ago. After Susan collapsed on the kitchen floor, she was rushed to the local hospital where scans revealed a massive brain hemorrhage. She was airlifted to the University of Iowa Hospital. She was in the intensive care unit there for fifty days, not a day of which she remembers.
Peter Marty says those days taught him some powerful lessons about nonpossesive living. He writes that “[one bishop] in the Russian Orthodox Church, says that if you hold on to something too tightly, you risk limiting the beauty of what your clinging to. You will also lose the use of your hands to that object…[As I watched Susan during some of her toughest days,] I thought to myself that if we are not permitted to possess some of the best things in life—grace and love, for example—why is it that we grip our favorite relationships so tightly?”
Marty says that before his wife’s aneurysm, he knew that life was a gift to be shared, not a possession to safeguard. But after they survived such an ordeal, he knew much more about nonpossesive love. They had learned to hold each other loosely.[ii]
I think the world’s current state of affairs can lead us into two unhelpful directions. On the one hand, we are tempted to give our hearts to no one, to say the problems are too great, to choose unbreakability and impenetrability for the sake of our own safety and comfort. On the other hand, we can cling ever so tightly to that which we love, and, in the process, risk limiting the beauty of whatever it is we are clinging to.
When Paul and I lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we had a walking path we took almost every night. At the end of the workday it was wonderful to have two miles where didn’t make a single decision. There were no disagreements about turning right or left; heading this way or that way. We always took the same path.
That path always took us down Center Avenue and past a house that took their statues and yard art very seriously. There were saints, and butterflies, and grazing deer galore. It was well-kept. It was perfect. My favorite statue of them all was the Madonna and Child that was positioned near the edge of the lot. It was about waist-high. Mary was dressed in a flowing blue robe. The baby Jesus was round and wonderful. And if passersby looked closely, they saw that the statue was chained to the nearby pine tree.
I used to remark to Paul as we walked by, “No one is going to steal their Mary, their Christ child!”
Duke theologian Christina Cleveland writes that “more often than man of us would like to admit, powerful Christians have held captive the truth of the incarnation.” Cleveland says, “This season, in a year which we need Christ’s liberating power more than ever, let’s release the truth of the incarnation. Let’s speak the truth. Let’s write songs of liberation. Let’s step outside our individualistic cocoons so we can stand in generous, cross-cultural solidarity with people who have stories, joys, and pains that are nothing like our own. Let’s fight against the systems of oppression and for the poor, the captive, and the sick.”
Rather than chaining Christ to our pine tree, let’s allow him to lead us into incarnate love.
This past week, I sat with two of Holy Trinity’s ninety-year-olds and read the gospel passage we just heard. When I finished reading, one of them said, “I choose to believe it’s true—that God really became one of us.” I said, “Yes, I do, too.” We gather and sing and pray today because we believe that God chose the way of vulnerability, that God chose the way that would inevitably lead to a broken heart, that God chose the way of liberating love.
All of this through a tiny baby who has just be placed in our arms.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves.
[ii] Marty, Peter. “Holding Each Other Loosely: After My Wife’s Brain Aneurysm.” Christian Century, August 2015.