You know, on paper, what we celebrate today is all clean and neat, and as the centuries have washed the story, it’s easy for us to swallow. I think about Linus famously proclaiming the Christmas story in the well-loved Charlie Brown Christmas cartoon, and it all seems so harmless. But we must never forget that the real Gift, the ultimate Gift, came to us in a not-so-neat package, in a way that was anything but clean and neat and easy-to-swallow. The gift of our salvation came to us at a great cost, from the beginning to the end, and the real source of our rejoicing ought to be that God was willing to pay so dearly for our souls.
Many years ago now, I remember two of my friends bringing their newest child to a choir rehearsal. Of course, we all just adored the little one, as friends do when they welcome a new child into the world. But I’ll never forget when they introduced him to the priest at our parish. He remarked about how cute the child was but said something along the lines of how difficult would be the world in which that child grew up, and he shuddered to think about all the hardships that the child would see and experience. I remember thinking that was a rather pessimistic thing to say on such a wonderful occasion, but it stuck with me ever since.
Because I find myself thinking the same thing when I gaze on our manger scenes. What kind of world would baby Jesus come to know? What kind of sadness and grief and pain would he have to put up with?
The beginning of John’s Gospel tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” God wanted to save the world. Because he made the world, he was particularly attached to it and to those who dwelt in the great garden he had created. He created us in love and for love, so he greatly desired in his grand plan that we would all come back to him one day and live forever with him in the kingdom. But he knew that, steeped in sin as our world can be, fallen and flawed, as we individually can be, that we would never think to turn to him on our own. We were – and are – too caught up in things that are not God and that are not ultimately going to bring us happiness. So he knew that the only thing that he could do was to enter our history once again.
And he could have done that in any way that he pleased – he’s God after all: all-powerful, all-knowing and present everywhere. John’s Gospel, though, tells us a few verses later just exactly how God chose to enter our history: “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” He chose not just to visit us, but instead to become one of us, taking upon himself all of our weaknesses, our pain, and our sorrows. He was born a baby: the all-powerful One taking on the least powerful stage of our existence. He was born to a poor family and announced to an unwed mother. The one who created the riches of the world and who himself was clothed in the splendor of the Almighty turned aside from all of it so that he could become one with his people. Had he chosen to come in any other form, he may have appealed to only some of us perhaps, but because he chose to take upon himself all that we must go through and then some, he is the way to salvation for all of us.
All of us who have messy lives sometimes can relate to the way Jesus came into our world. We all want our lives to be orderly and easy and sensible. But mostly, that doesn’t happen. Life gets in the way. And so to see Jesus come at a less-than-opportune moment, before Mary and Joseph were even officially wed, in the midst of a government census, born while his parents were travelling and could not find a place to stay – well, it’s just messy, isn’t it? And it’s just like us.
The only way that the full brokenness of our human form could be redeemed was for Jesus to take on all of it when he came to save us. That’s why his birth was so messy, why he had to be born in a manger with all the farm animals, that’s why he never had a place to lay his head in all his life. What is amazing is that, as wretched as our earthly lives can be sometimes, God never considered himself above it all, never hesitated for a moment to take it on and fill it with grace.
And that’s the flip side of this whole interaction, you know. God didn’t take on our form so that he could become less, he took on our form so that we could become more. So, yes, God becomes one of us and takes on all of our infirmities and weaknesses. But in doing that, we ourselves become more than we could ever be on our own. Our lowliness is filled with grace, our sadness is filled with rejoicing. That was always the plan God had for us.
So as we gaze upon and adore our Lord in the manger, maybe we can take some of the items in that beautiful snapshot and see what will come for him as he grows older. We see the shepherds, lowly men despised often by society, the marginalized ones who are the first to receive the message. We see the wise men, those who in the wisdom they have received from God, are ready to give everything to follow Christ. We see the angels, the messengers who urge us to take a second look at an innocent child who might not otherwise attract our attention. We see his father Joseph, who will teach him the law, as a good father would, and help him to grow in the ways of humanity, which he so completely assumed. We see his mother, who nurtured him in childhood and followed him in adulthood, becoming the first of his disciples. We see the wood of the manger, a foreshadowing of the wood of the Cross, which will be the means of our salvation. And we see and adore Christ himself, the Way, the wonder-counselor, our father forever, and prince of peace.
When we look at that manger scene with eyes of faith, we become different, knowing that Jesus paid an incredible price to bring us back to him, not just on the Cross, but even at his birth. The preface of the Eucharistic prayer which we will pray in a few moments makes this so clear: “In the wonder of the incarnation, your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.”
Human eyes can look at that manger and see with cynicism that he’s just like us, nothing special. But eyes of faith look at the same event and see that he’s just like us in every way but sin, and that makes him incredibly special, worthy of adoration. Thanks be to God that the birth of Jesus wasn’t as neat and tidy as it looks sometimes on paper. If his first coming into the world weren’t so messy, we might never know the joy of redemption and the true worth of our humanity.
So if our eyes of faith have helped us to see beyond an ordinary child and to recognize our Saving God, then this Christmas has to find us sharing that vision with others. May Christmas find us open to the needs of others, willing to reconcile differences, looking for opportunities to be of service to others, eager to change our own little corner of the world for the better. Human eyes see opportunities like that as nuisances or things for other people to do. Eyes of faith see them as occasions of grace and blessing to both the receiver and the giver. May this Christmas find us seeing all of our world with eyes of faith.
Speaking for myself and on behalf of our pastor, Fr. Ted, our deacons and all of our pastoral staff here at St. Raphael, I wish you a very blessed Christmas season. We pray that you encounter Christ in every moment of the coming year, and that you and your families are filled with every grace and blessing.