Is there anything quite so wonderful as a Christmas Eve service? The church is decorated beautifully with poinsettas and wreaths and greenery. Our beloved and beautiful crèche stands where it does each year at the foot of the altar, with its wonderful hand-carved figures. We have heard our choir and organ perform music familiar and new. Some of us have already begun to celebrate Christmas, having come here from parties or gatherings. Others are looking forward to late night festivities, or to lavish dinners tomorrow with friends and family..
We have been looking forward to this moment for days, weeks, even months, as the shopping season grows longer and longer each year, the build-up more intense, the extravagance and glitz each year seems to outdo the previous year’s.
Perhaps it’s just me, but this year I sense that our excitement and our celebration is a bit more desperate, more forced, that in spite of all of our efforts, there’s a certain hollowness underneath it all. We want to forget what’s happening in our nation and the world, no amount of shopping or parties, or festive behavior can make us forget what’s been happening in our nation’s capital, or across the street, or throughout the world. Our celebration of Christmas is occurring against a backdrop of troubling events and realities—wildfires in LA, the fact that fellow American citizens continue to live without power in Puerto Rico, months after the hurricane worked its devastation. Many fellow Americans face broken families and deportation because of immigration. Our political class finds ways to enrich itself and the economic elites to which it is beholden, while millions of others live in grinding poverty and inequality.
If that weren’t enough, there are all the worries, fears, and suffering that many of us carry to this place today—broken relationships, illness, hopelessness, grief.
We come here, on this evening, hoping that the beauty of this space, the familiar carols and stories, singing carols we’ve sung so many times before. We come here, hoping that for an hour or two, our faith in God, and in the word made flesh will be affirmed and strengthened. We hope that for an hour or two, the darkness in our world and in our lives will be transformed by the light of Christ.
Some of us come, looking for that light, or looking for something to give hope in our lives, hope for our world. Some of us are so distressed, so burdened, that we are afraid to dare even to hope. We come because it is our custom, or because we seek to remember years ago, when we hoped, when we had faith. Some of us may even be here out of curiosity, wondering what it’s all about?
We may feel the world has turned against us personally. We may feel the world has changed, that our hopes for better lives for ourselves and for our fellow humans, lives free of oppression, war, violence, and injustice, have come to naught. Instead, we look at a future of greater inequality, suffering, with climate catastrophe on the horizon, the threat of nuclear war, and a wealthy elite that cares about none of it, cares about nothing except enriching themselves.
In some ways, the world of the first century was not that dissimilar to the world we seem to face. The vast majority of people were little more than opportunities for the wealthy and powerful few to oppress and exploit for their own economic advantage. Globalization didn’t benefit most people in the Roman empire and the great palaces of the Roman period were separated by a vast chasm of inequality from the living conditions of the overwhelming majority of people.
So, too, with the gods. The Roman Empire and the Roman way of life were propped up the gods and by the Romans’ sacrifices to them. Beginning with the emperor, among whose titles was Pontifex Maximus, roughly, very roughly translated, “Chief Priest” the duties of Roman citizens included making regular sacrifices. The Emperor was more than priest; in a sense he was divine, and his propaganda, his coinage proclaimed, among other things, that he was “Son of God, Savior.”
But as we know, the story of the incarnation, of God becoming human did not take place in a Roman palace, in Rome, which was the center of the world. It likely took place in a cave, a place where animals were sheltered during the night. It took place in a provincial backwater. It occurred not among the wealthy or the powerful, not at the imperial court, but among a poor and defeated people, among people who had been moved about at the whim of the emperor, who were subject to frightening oppression.
For God is not on the side of the wealthy and powerful, no matter how much they think their wealth and power is a sign of God’s favor. The story of the nativity is eloquent testimony to those who God does favor, beginning with a young woman who is visited by an angel and is promised to give birth to the Savior of the world. God favors shepherds, sending a choir of angels to them to share the good news of the Savior’s birth. God sends to shepherds, poor, outcast, men who struggle to find enough food for themselves and their flocks, who live out their days on the very edge of society.
For us, that story is a reminder that God is with us, whether we are wealthy and powerful, or we are poor and weak. God is with us in the midst of our struggles, in our pain and suffering, in our grief and doubts. God is with us, but especially God is with those whom our society and culture rejects: the homeless who are sleeping on the other side of this courtyard, or on the streets of this city. God is with single moms struggling to find a place to stay for the night, or struggling to find a way to give birth and care for their babies.
God is with all those left behind by the greed and wealth that is the heart and soul of the American economy. God is with all those victims of violence, whether that is the gun violence that plagues our nation, or the violence of the continuous wars that we fight. God is with immigrants who worry whether they will be deported, or their families divided. God is with prisoners and captives.
Emmanuel, God with us. But this story tells us something else. Even as we look for and find signs of God’s presence in the suffering of the world around us, the nativity is a sign of the transformation that God is bringing about even now.
For Mary was not only a humble young woman, she was also a prophet, proclaiming the Good News. In her hymn, her psalm of praise that she sings after receiving news her pregnancy, Mary sings,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
These words, coming from a song that may be familiar to many of us, may sound hollow in our current context. They may sound hollow given they were sung two thousand years ago by a young woman living in difficult circumstances, facing an unimaginable challenge. But she sang them.
She saw, in God at work in her own life, in her womb, she saw signs of God’s justice coming down, God making things right, remaking the world as God intended when God created us and the world in which we live.
She saw, in spite of everything, her own circumstances, the power of Rome, she saw God casting the mighty down from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things, sending the rich away empty. She saw, to use the traditional language translation of the Magnificat we’ve used in worship the last two weeks: “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
If she, in her circumstances saw all this, we can see it too. We can see God making the world new in the birth of Christ, not in the center of power and wealth, but in a temporary shelter, in a remote village. We can see God making the world new in all that birth represents: a different world, a different possibility, a world of justice and love, of human beings bound together by the image we share, the God in whose image we were all created.
If Mary can see God at work in the world around her, we need look with Mary’s eyes, and see God at work in our world—bringing about transformation and new life in the midst of evil, suffering, and darkness. We can see God casting down the mighty from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things.
All that we can see, with Mary’s eyes; all that we can help birth into being when we are filled with the light of Christ, transformed by the love of Christ, and re made, with the grace of Christ.
As we gather around the crèche, and worship the newborn child, as we gather around the table and share in the Eucharistic feast, may our eyes be transformed, our hearts be filled, and our bodies strengthened, to bring God’s love and justice into our dark world. Amen.