Glory to + God in the highest heaven, and peace to you and to all the earth! Amen
The birth of God’s son, the long-promised heir to the throne of David, the one who shall be called wonderful, counselor, mighty God, everlasting parent, prince of peace. This is the one whose name is Yeshuva — the one who saves – Jesu (latin), Jesús (Spanish), Jesus. Many people around the world – and indeed many of us here –have known these Gospel words, this story of the savior’s birth, since long before we can remember.
It’s interesting to observe how we, and the children we know, experience, this story. In our children’s remembrance of this event, we focus on how the earthly and the heavenly touch each other, how the mundane messiness of life and the glorious holiness of eternity are woven together in a single scene at night in a barn. After this child, his mother, and her man, the first witnesses to this birth are domestic animals. We remember the scene as peaceful and full of awe … the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
And then the shepherds show up. These folks raise animals for wool and food. They’ve seen plenty of deaths and plenty of births. Maybe they’re even a bit hardened in their attitudes toward death and birth– it took an angel to explain the significance of this event to them. It took a multitude of the heavenly host to convince them that this one birth, from among many, is worth their attention. So they go and look, and then they pass on what they saw and heard.
When we listen, I daresay we hear, in Luke’s in telling of this scene, an undercurrent of shame, isolation and loneliness for dad and mom and baby, only relieved by the intervention of the angel and the heavenly host to get the shepherds to that barn to adore the newborn child. The angel plays a big role in the way we hear the story. There’s something about enacting the story that makes children want to be the agent of mercy: one of the favorite parts in our children’s pageant is that angel.
I understand that in Latin America the emphasis is a little different from ours. Their telling features more Bethlehem townspeople. Their children, I’m told, enact a scene where Maria and José go from house to house, knocking on doors to beg for shelter. They’re turned away again and again, until finally some householder takes minimal pity on them and sends them around back to the stable. I’ve heard that the kids’ favorite part in their pageants, after Maria and José, is also the bearer of mercy, the one who offers the family stable. It’s a slightly different focus – depicting the struggle of that family as one of rejection rather than loneliness – but the yearning for mercy is the same.
So, various peoples of the world who know this story experience the worldly details as evidence that this new little traveling family were strangers: outsiders. To us they seem to be what we might call a nuclear family: mom, dad, one child. The way we hear this story these two, then three people kept to themselves. They were rejected by the townspeople, and they kept their joys and their struggles private, sharing them with none but some farm animals. It took some major heavenly intervention to get anyone on earth to pay attention to them.
I wonder, though. Do we look at this little holy family and see ourselves instead of them? Is it our fears we see in them? Do we fear rejection by our townspeople? Do we keep our family struggles and joys quiet? Do we rely on our domestic animals to adore us? Are we missing something?
A wonderful scholar called Richard Swanson suggests that we are, indeed, missing something. This is Chapter 2 of Luke’s Gospel. Chapter 1 is a long chapter, and it’s almost entirely taken up with establishing the strength of Mary and Joseph’s extended family, and divine favor for them. We hear of the angel visiting Mary. We hear of Elizabeth, Mary’s older kinswoman, and her pregnancy. The two women spend three months together during their pregnancies caring for one another and marveling over their children-to-be. This big family built their life together in Hebrew reverence, following the Torah of the Lord.
Later on in Luke’s gospel we hear more about this family. Jesus stayed behind in the temple as a young teen after Passover. His parents and their family party went down from Jerusalem through this town of Bethlehem (for that’s how the road goes) back to Galilee. They didn’t miss him, and they didn’t worry about him, for they trusted that he was surrounded by extended family. This Bethlehem was a safe place. Everybody knew them there. It was home.
Back to the birth account: it’s only after Luke establishes this family’s deep reservoirs of faithful strength that the Romans come tramping in. It’s only after we’ve heard of the Lord’s favor for Mary and her infant nephew John (who will become John the Baptist) that Luke sounds the trumpets of the imperial overlords.
There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed … And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, called Bethlehem.
The imperial army wanted to keep people on edge. They wanted to push people around and keep them distracted by hard-to-follow orders. This has always been a tactic by which conquerors strive to keep conquered people demoralized and quiet. And so this man Joseph and his greatly pregnant fiancée had to take a long trip at a really bad time to his ancestral home. The Romans were hoping that family ties would be strained and weakened by all this forced travel.
But, it didn’t work. Exactly the opposite happened, according to Richard Swanson’s reading of the story. The Roman’s travel orders – the ones they thought were oppressive – filled the whole city of David with that family. Everybody in Bethlehem was family – the innkeepers, the crowds jamming the inns and the streets, the shepherds, everybody. The place was bursting at the seams with family. There was no guest room available in the inn for these two, but that didn’t mean they turned on the “no vacancy” sign and told these people to get lost. Family found a place for family to stay, even if it was in the barn.
Even the shepherds are family. The angel doesn’t tell them, “a child was born to this stranger woman Mary,” or even “a child was born to Joseph of the house of David son of Jesse.” The angel says “to YOU a child is born.” “To you, to your family.” This baby Jesus is born in the bosom of his strong and faithful family, a family who maintained their faith and strength in the face of the Roman Empire’s attempts to disrupt them. This little one, this long-awaited one, appeared on earth surrounded and supported by cousins and aunts and uncles.
So, friends, on this night when we relive the birth of the long-awaited Messiah, let us re-imagine the circumstances. Let us put aside the idea that the holy family was lonely, ashamed, and rejected. We do of course all have our own lonelinesses, shames, and rejections: we’re human. But let’s not see only those parts of our lives reflected in the story of this holy family.
Instead, let us understand that we, too, are among the great family crowds jamming Bethlehem. Let us recognize one another as the family we are: God’s family. And let us rejoice at the birth of this holy little child, who binds us all together in love for each other and for our God, creator, + word, and spirit. Amen.