Why do we do this? Why do we celebrate the birth of one who was born and died two thousand years ago? Why do we sing the carols, give the gifts, gather with friends and family, make a big deal out of this particular birth?
What is it about this story of a poor unmarried teenage mother and her fiancé that keeps calling us back, year after year? Because even people who disavow Jesus all the rest of the year find themselves moved by this story when we get to Christmas. There’s a there there. What is that about?
Maybe it’s about the underdog. Mary and Joseph are part of the oppressed class, the Jews that are subject to all the rules and regulations of Rome. That’s how this story opens: with this random decree from Augustus, way off in Rome, that all the world should be registered. Why would anyone do that, unless it is to keep better tabs on the people you are oppressing so you can squeeze more taxes out of them? It’s certainly not a convenient time for Mary, but of course Augustus doesn’t care. He can’t see her. She is nothing but a tax payer to him. So this is an underdog story.
The shepherds are part of the underdog theme, too: shepherds were on the lowest strata of society. They didn’t get much chance to bathe. They didn’t socialize much. They weren’t educated. And yet not only are they included in the story; they are the first to receive the Good News—from angels, no less. The story begins with Augustus, authority, oppression. It ends with shepherds “glorifying and praising”—not Augustus, but God—“for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). Take that, Augustus! God wins.
Maybe we love this story because it’s about new birth. Everyone who has ever experienced pregnancy has stories to tell about it: the physical discomfort as one’s body grows this whole other being, the months of anticipation, the weird cravings, the labor, the delivery. Mary and Joseph’s story is hard to top. A difficult journey at the most uncomfortable point in the pregnancy, no hotel reservations, no midwife, a bunch of animals, a manger as a cradle, for goodness’ sake. But Mary survived, and so did the baby.
Maybe you, too, have looked into the glassy eyes of a newborn and wondered: Who are you going to be? What will your life be like? What stories will you have to tell? How will you change the world? What a gift you are! What a promise of a future full of potential. Everything lies before you, and you get to explore it all.
When we are feeling cynical, tired, beaten down, sad, we may look at a baby and see a new beginning, trust, hope, joy. Babies remind us of our own beginnings, our own joy. We were once those babies, and we’ve been living into our stories and our potential all this time. And our story isn’t over.
The birth of Jesus is God’s promise to us fulfilled. Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…. For a child has been born for us …; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father (Everlasting Mother), Prince of Peace…. [A]nd there shall be endless peace…. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:2a, 6-7). That sounds great, especially for a people with a history of being overrun and conquered from all sides. Isaiah wrote seven centuries before Christ was born. He may have been referring to a miracle child in his own era. It doesn’t matter. In every generation, we yearn for such a leader to be born, to make things right, to rule with justice and peace.
That’s it: Whether we are seven centuries before Christ or twenty-one centuries after, we need God’s loving presence incarnate in our midst. In a world full of war and strife, oppression, climate crises, greed, hate, discrimination, we yearn for the divine presence that will bring peace with justice, that will make things right, both within our own souls and throughout the world, that will teach us to discard our fears and love this wild world with abandon.
That’s the promise of this story. That’s the ideal we hold up, yearn for, try to embody, fail, try again. Some part of us is represented by every person in this story. We are Caesar Augustus, relishing our power over others. We are the innkeepers who cannot make room for such a needy couple. We are Joseph, not quite sure what he’s signed on for but committed to making it work. We are Mary, scared, excited, in pain, wondering if she’s up to becoming a mother so young, and especially of such a special child. We are the angels saying, “All right, calm down, I’ve got some great news for you.” We are the shepherds, so used to being forgotten, burning with curiosity as they run into town and dancing with joy, hearts singing God’s praises all the way back.
We are that Christ Child, God incarnate being born in our very souls. That is the promise, the Good News of this story, the power that draws us back every year with its ideal, its potential. Even as we are entangled in the challenges of every day, even as we hear angry, hateful words come out of our mouths in fits of temper, even as we ignore those in need at our street corners, we come back to this story and resolve to try again.
In Advent we light the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. We do this at the time of year when the days are short and everything feels dark, gloomy, wet, cold, and endless. I think our church forebears were wise to select the depths of December for a celebration of the birth of Christ. New life in the deepest darkness. Candles that remind us of the light that has come into the world, and the darkness did not overcome it. A promise that God is indeed with us, as the name Emmanuel affirms.
This year we were invited to include a little devotional booklet in our Advent journey, centering on poems by Mary Oliver. Here is part of one reflection from this booklet:
Christmas Eve, one of the longest nights of the year, is nevertheless a night of hope. In the shadows of empire and homelessness, it is nevertheless a night of peace. In the shadows of loneliness and despair, it is nevertheless a night of “great joy for all the people.” And in the shadows of fear and contempt, it is nevertheless a night of love. … A child is born, and with [Mary] Oliver, we may hear again “those exacting and wonderful / words of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying: / Follow me.”
Let us pray.
God of mindfulness, shalom, delight, and compassion; God of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi, the powerful and the dispossessed: we thank you and praise you for being a God of the shadows. We thank you and praise you for bringing hope where there is despair, peace where there is conflict, joy where there is sorrow, and love where there is hate or indifference. Give us the grace and wisdom, the courage and boldness, to follow you and do the same. Thank you for coming to dwell with us, to live with us, to wake us up, calm us down, and love us back to life. Come, Jesus, come! Amen.
[The reflection and the closing prayer come from “The Poetry of Advent: An Advent Companion to Mary Oliver’s Devotions,” the Salt Project, saltproject.org.]