This sermon was preached at our celebrations on the 24th, but it speaks to the great themes of the whole of the 12 Days of Christmas… and in fact into the life of the people of faith as we make our way into Epiphanytide and beyond.
et us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” As Luke tells the story, the shepherds leave their fields to go into the little town where they find a baby born in a barn, sleeping in the feed trough. It was, needless to say, an unusual manifestation of the glory of God. But for those shepherds, it was apparently tranformative: “and they returned to the fields, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”
At the conclusion of his wonderful retelling of the story, the Minnesota story-teller Garrison Keillor remarks that it was the shepherds who were the lucky ones; that they didn’t have to do anything to earn the experience of seeing this child… it was just given to them, as a gift.
A gift given to shepherds of all people. Rough folk, who lived out on the land tending animals. When the Winnipeg Art Gallery hosted an exhibit of illuminations from the new St John’s Bible earlier this year, I was surprised to see that the shepherds in the nativity illumination were pictured as women. I was at the exhibit with a biblical scholar, and I asked him if that was even possible. “Yes,” he said, “not only possible, but probable.” It seems that shepherding was often as not family work, so there would have been women and children involved, along with the men. That is not how it usually goes in our Christmas card images, is it? Families of low status and no education, living a hand to mouth existence.
“The shepherds were the lucky ones,” says Keillor, adding that others who wanted to see this child would have to seek him in other ways and in other places.
But you know, people do still go up to Bethlehem in search of some experience that might draw them closer to Jesus. In the middle ages, pilgrims went with their prayers, and crusaders went with their swords. Now travelers fly in to Tel Aviv and take bus tours in to Bethlehem, a battered city in Palestinian territory. They go to visit the Church of the Nativity, in which is found the place that is said to be the birthplace.
The instinct to go and see – to go and experience a particular place – is deep, and one with which I have some real sympathy. It is part of why when Catherine, Callaway and I traveled earlier this year we went to places like Patmos and Ephesus.
But tonight is not narrowly about the place Bethlehem. It is about God with us; about God incarnate; about God enfleshed as a fragile baby.
In her book For the Time Being, Annie Dillard recounts her visit to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, calling it “one of the queerest spots on earth.” She writes of how monasteries of various traditions have been clamped “like barnacles” onto the church, surrounding the spot said to be the place where Jesus was born. Deep down a series of staircases one comes to a cave, all laden with hanging lamps and arches of brocade, with a fourteen point silver star set into the marble floor. “In the center of the silver star was a circular hole,” she writes. “That was the bull’s-eye, God’s quondam target.” And then she continues, “Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto.”
Dillard doesn’t dismiss those who find something of God’s presence there in that place. It is just that for her, “any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence.”
Her insistence is, I think, fundamentally correct. What the birth of the timeless Son of God in time – in a particular place to a particular woman – does is reclaim the whole of creation as God’s, and restore each and every one of us as sons and daughters of God in Christ.
“Christ plays in ten thousand places,” wrote the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and if we wish to see this Christ child we must seek him in one of those many, many places. Not far away, and certainly not tucked into a heavily sentimentalized version of Luke’s story, but day by day in our real lives, week by week around this communion table, moment by moment in all that we are and do.
In this Christmas season, may you be found with your head up and your eyes open, seeking to see that Christ playing in the many places of our lives.
Have a blessed Christmas season.