What do you want for Christmas, little girl, little boy? So many Santas ask so many children that question in December as they get their pictures taken. And some kids are ready: “Here we are, perfect kids, being perfectly good for Santa so we’ll get lots of presents. Little angels, we are.” They get organized and roll out a long list: Legos, video game, American Girl doll, cookies. Or, if you’re like me when I first sat on Santa’s lap at age one, I just screamed. And that’s what the photo shows: this little girl in mid-meltdown. “What I want for Christmas is to not be on the lap of some guy in a fake beard. I do not want to be here. I don’t know this guy. What are we doing?” Except I didn’t know how to say any of those words, so I just cried.
What do you want for Christmas? We all ask our loved ones for suggestions, or comb through catalogs and stores looking for the perfect gifts. We try to make the perfect dinner, with the perfect turkey, the gravy with no little white lumps, the pumpkin pie. The tree has to be just right, no blank spots where there are no lights—and of course, no dog pulling the whole thing over. We look for the perfect Christmas cards to send to all the people we’ve ever met in our entire lives, including the ones we haven’t seen for 25 years. We put pressure on ourselves to have the perfect holiday, perhaps to make up for all the ways this year and these relationships and we ourselves have been far less than perfect. We all show up to this holy day with our less-than-perfect selves and then wonder why it was not a perfect day? What stress!
So of course I’m going to ask, What if that’s not what it’s all about?
There’s this little baby, born, so the story goes, in a stable, wrapped in swaddling cloths, laid in a manger. It’s a beautiful story: a virgin young woman, the Holy Spirit, a star, shepherds, a manger. A new baby representing vulnerability, the future, helplessness, possibilities, new beginnings, the Divine.
Many of you are parents or even grandparents. You’ve been in that birthing room, maybe multiple times. You’ve seen your babies and grandbabies on their very first day, maybe when they take their very first breath. You’ve been there when they did basic things for the first time: breathing on their own, eating, pooping, crying. It was thrilling. Maybe you felt a sense of awe and wonder to see someone experience these new things, these things that they will do now for the rest of their lives. It’s miraculous. It is utter exhaustion and absolute overflowing joy. And you find yourself wondering, “What will life hold for this baby? What world is possible for him or her?”
People in that moment can experience an overwhelming love: you want to make a good world a reality for the sake of this sweet, vulnerable, helpless baby.
If you are a parent of a new baby, all that has come before in your own life—especially if there have been hard times—may fade, and you resolve to begin again, to do better. “I’m going to stay sober, get off drugs. I’m going to get a good-paying job to take care of you so you can have every opportunity. I’ve got you, Baby. You are safe with me.”
You have to do some instant growing up. Suddenly you are responsible for another life—for someone who is completely helpless without you. And you are totally in love, totally smitten with this little blob of a person, this little baby who is a part of you. How is it possible for our hearts to break so wide open?
One of my favorite quotes at this time of year comes from Meister Eckhart:
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to [this] Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us. [Quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in Gospel Medicine.]
Christ born in us. Like that baby: helpless, vulnerable, needing us. Not just any miraculous baby. Christ.
And maybe you say, “Not little old me. I’m nobody. Surely God could choose a more worthy person in whom Christ could be born.”
South African poet Isobel de Gruchy wrote a poem about this called “No One Know My Name”:
I am the girl whom no one’s heard of,
no one remembers, no one cares,
no one even knows my name.
Could it be that I never lived?
Yet that far-off day seems more real
now than many another.
Early spring light, soft and pink on the shutters,
was suddenly shadowed by the imposing form
of a stranger tall and serious.
“Greetings—the Lord is with you.”
And seeing I trembled,
“Do not be afraid,
I have a message for you,
you will bear a son and he will inherit
his father David’s throne.”
I stood still as a statue,
while my thoughts
whirled and jangled.
I was not married.
I was too young. It must be a joke?
Who was this man anyway?
Was I really hearing this word,
or imagining it?
He stood waiting
and I cried out, “Oh, no,
I’m not the one, don’t ask me!
There must be someone else.”
The light in his eyes dimmed
not of vision surely,
but of deep sorrow.
You know, don’t you, where he went?
And that is why no one knows my name.
[Isobel de Gruchy, “No One Know My Name,” in Gifts in Open Hands, ed. Maren Tirabassi and Kathy Wonson Eddy (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2011), 69-70.]
God invites us to give birth to Jesus. Yes, us. Just as we are. Hung over, addicted, outcast, sick, old, young, fat, skinny, broke, broken. God hears all our excuses and still says, “Yes, you: you’re the one. I want you to give birth to Jesus.” Maybe we’re tempted, like the young woman in the poem, to make excuses, to say, “You’ve got the wrong person. I’m not worthy. I’m nobody. Try the folks next door—they’re very nice.”
What do you want for Christmas? “I want Christ to be born in me.” Nobody says this. It’s a terrifying thing to say, because who knows where that would lead?
But what if we said it anyway? “I want Christ to be born in me.” What if we looked at that newborn baby lying in a manger and allowed ourselves to be totally smitten, heard ourselves say, before we could stop the words from coming out of our mouths, “I’m here for you, Baby Jesus. I’m going to make this world a decent place for you to live in. I’m going to give you every opportunity.”
Oh, now we’ve done it. We are jumping with both feet into being the parent of God. Because the thing is, it’s not just that Christ child we have to make a good world for. It’s all of our babies. I’m thinking of the seven-year-old girl who traveled with her father from her village in northern Guatemala to the US border, where she died in detention. I’m thinking of children of color, victims of centuries of racism, who grow up in communities where the schools are not funded but the guns and drugs are. I’m thinking of the little boy who washed up on the shore a few years ago when his boat crammed full of immigrants overturned and he drowned. I’m thinking of so many of our babies.
It’s overwhelming. We’re not going to solve all of it. But we can do something. And that will matter to some of those babies. That Christ within us—the Christ we are a-borning—will guide us.
On several occasions I have asked this congregation, “If Jesus Christ were standing here right in front of you and asked you, ‘What would you like me to do for you?’ do you know what your answer would be?” The question at Christmas is similar: When we welcome the Christ child—when we celebrate Christmas and wish for peace on earth, goodwill to all, and all of that—what do we actually want?
When Jesus asks Blind Bartimaeus, “What would you like me to do for you?” he knows right away: he wants his sight back.
One person in this church said, “I want world peace.” I said, “No, I mean just for you.” He said, “Yes. I want world peace.” Okay. Some people set the bar high.
In Advent we celebrate hope, peace, joy, and love when we light the Advent candles. What would it look like to ask for those for Christmas? And then how do we show up to make that world a reality?
Ultimately, I think Christmas is less about us sitting on Santa’s lap and saying, “Here’s what I want for Christmas.” It’s more about us kneeling at the manger, staring into that brand-new face, and saying, “What do you want for Christmas, Baby Jesus?” And then, like new parents, figuring out how to make a world in which that baby—and all our babies—can thrive.
Christ is born—in you, and you, and you, and you, and me. Christ is born, and what he wants for Christmas is a world of hope, peace, love, and joy. It’s a tall order. Hearts overflowing with profound love, we can do our imperfect best. Christ is born—hallelujah! Merry Christmas to all! Amen.