The Birth of Jesus
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. [NRSV]
years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article by Dr. Paul Ruskin on the “Stages of Aging.” In the article, Dr. Ruskin described a case study he had presented to his students when teaching a class in medical school. He described the case study patient under his care like this:
“The patient neither speaks nor comprehends the spoken word. Sometimes she babbles incoherently for hours on end. She is disoriented about person, place, and time. She does, however, respond to her name… I have worked with her for the past six months, but she still shows complete disregard for her physical appearance and makes no effort to assist her own care. She must be fed, bathed, and clothed by others.
“Because she has no teeth, her food must be pureed. Her shirt is usually soiled from almost incessant drooling. She does not walk. Her sleep pattern is erratic. Often she wakes in the middle of the night and her screaming awakens others. Most of the time she is friendly and happy, but several times a day she gets quite agitated without apparent cause. Then she wails until someone comes to comfort her.”
After presenting the class with this challenging case, Dr. Ruskin then asked his students if any of them would like to volunteer to take care of this person. No one volunteered. Then Dr. Ruskin said, “I’m surprised that none of you offered to help, because actually she is my favorite patient. I get immense pleasure from taking care of her… and I am learning so much from her. She has taught me a depth of gratitude I never knew before. She has taught me the spirit of unwavering trust. And she has taught me the power of unconditional love.” Then Dr. Ruskin said, “Let me show you her picture.” He pulled out the picture and passed it around. It was the photo of his six-month-old baby daughter.
Now, I like that story for several reasons. For one thing, it shows us the importance of perspective. And it shows us how essential it is to have all the facts before we make a decision. It reminds us too, that our children have so much to teach us… if we will tune in and pay attention.
Sometimes the events described in the Bible bowl us over with their sheer size.
- Genesis of God commanding light and darkness to go their separate ways, summoning the seven seas like charters, and, with a word, drawing up the massive continents from the primordial ooze of the formless earth.
- Or, hundreds of thundering Egyptian chariots dashing headlong after fleeing Hebrew slaves. Suddenly the once dry gap in the sea is invaded by a violent wall of water,
- Or again, the vision in the Book of Revelation of the saints in heaven gathered in a multitude greater than the eye can see, an ocean of faces and white robes larger than the mind can measure, an endless throng finding the place in their hymn books, and triumphantly singing, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God!” Compared to this, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sounds like a quartet.
Tonight is Christmas Eve, and the familiar story we have heard from Luke’s gospel is itself one of those events which threatens to overwhelm us by its scope. It begins, to be sure, in a small and gentle way, shepherds resting on a Judean hillside keeping wary watch over the flocks. But suddenly the episode spills beyond the edges of imagination’s canvas. The night sky is flooded by the light of glory. First there is one angel, then another and another, until finally there is a heavenly host, putting on an angelic display so terrifyingly spectacular that the King James Bible seems deeply understated when it reports that the shepherds “were sore afraid.”
The important thing to notice is that Luke does not dazzle us with spacious description.
- How bright was this shining glory of the Lord? Luke does not say. What did the angels look like? Luke is silent.
- How many were there? Luke declines to count them.
- What exactly were the angels doing as they filled the sky with song? Luke has no comment.
- What expression was on the face of the newborn savior? Luke says nothing.
It is as if Luke pulls our attention away from the events themselves and focuses it instead on something else, namely the responses of those who were involved.
The shepherds were “sore afraid,” but returned from Bethlehem “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” The people who heard their reports “wondered at what the shepherds had told them.” Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” As for the “glory of the Lord,” Luke is reticent, but when it comes to those upon whom it shone, he breaks his descriptive silence and saves his fullest language to portray what happened in their lives and hearts.
But there is another, and more important, reason why Luke turns our gaze from the light itself toward the faces of those people who were illumined by it. Luke wants us to search those faces and to find our own faces reflected there, to find ourselves once again filled with wonder, to ponder these things in our hearts, to contemplate the possibility that we, too, might glorify and praise God this Christmas Eve for all that we have experienced because of the life of the Christ child born that night.
Luke does not want us to be fascinated by this story’s height; he invites us instead to explore for ourselves its depth.
There was once a Christmas pageant at a small church in which the part of the innkeeper at Bethlehem was played by a high school student. He was a quiet and polite boy, but the kind of boy for whom the word “awkward” was an apt description — awkward in manner, awkward in social relationships, even awkward in size, his growing frame always pushing at the limits of his clothing. His peers liked him well enough, but he was the sort of person who was easy to overlook, to exclude from the center of things.
When Joseph and Mary appeared at the inn, he stood … awkwardly … in the doorway, slumping a bit toward the couple as they made their request for lodging. He then dutifully recited his one line, “There is no room in the inn.” But as Mary and Joseph turned and walked wearily away toward the cattle stall where they would spend the night, the boy continued to watch them with eyes filled with compassion. Suddenly responding to a grace which, though not part of the script, filled the moment, he startled himself, the holy couple, and the audience, by calling, “Wait a minute. Don’t go. You can have my room.”
Making Room for the Baby:
Every baby will keep every parent up all night, at least once. It’s a rule. Whether because they are teething or colicky, anxious or tummy-troubled, or just plain fussy, it’s part of a baby’s mission in life to keep its parents awake weeping and wailing.
We parents are “hard-wired” to respond to an infant’s cries. What has kept us grieving all week, a grief that can’t be spoken? What has kept our hearts hurting all week, a pain that won’t go away? When an infant or child is in trouble, or hurt, or killed, both our right and left brains insist we must do something to “fix” the situation. If our hearts melt at the mere sound of a distressed infant, how much more do our hearts overflow in anguish at the sight of children being harmed or in harm’s way – even if our own nerve endings are jangling and cross-firing.
Before there were “white noise” recordings, washing machines, or long car rides to soothe the plaintive cries of a child, parents in every culture on the planet came up with the same plan to quiet a crying child — lullabies. Sweet melodies, slowly cadenced, softly sung, lullabies “lull” little ones into a dreamy place. They also have almost lulled me to my doom. One of my favorite CDs is Tom Wasinger’s “The World Sings Goodnight,” which I have downloaded into the playlist of my truck. These 33 lullabies are from all over the world – Bolivia, Indonesia, Poland, Russia, Ethiopia, Japan, Egypt, India, Algeria, Iran, to name a few other than the more obvious ones from the US and Canada. My problem is that as I’m barreling down the highway listening to these lullabies, I’m also being lulled to sleep.
Ask your people what lullabies were sung to them growing up. You might start with your own, and refresh their memories about lullabies that are as famous as “Away in a Manger” (Luther’s cradle song) or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Frere Jacques” (Brother Jack) or “Rock-a-bye Baby” (written in late 1700s when some English immigrants to the new world saw how native Americans carried their children) or as forgotten as Brahms’ “Lullaby and Goodnight” (Brahms Lullaby) or “All Through the Night” (a Welsh folk song first recorded 1784) or Paul Simon’s lullaby written for his son “St. Judy’s Comet”.]
I suspect that everyone here has noticed that the actual words of some lullabies aren’t always all that comforting think “down will come baby, cradle and all.” But the cradling arms and rocking-chair rhythms in which these songs were sung created a safe, special place for a fussy infant.
In this week’s gospel text we heard the first hymn of the new age. Jesus’ birth announcement came in the form of a song, Mary’s Song, known as “The Magnificat.” The “Magnificat,” Mary’s hymn of praise to God, is nothing less than her first lullaby to her baby, to the embryonic Messiah. The first thing Jesus heard in his mother’s womb, outside the beating of her heart, was Mary’s lullaby telling him in the womb how blessed his mother was with his presence. Mary’s lullaby tells her child that his conception is a product of both God’s “mighty arm” and God’s great mercy.
Here is Mary’s Song. Let’s say the lullaby together.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Like most lullabies there are some dark and downside stanzas. The proud get knocked off their high horses, or fall from their pedestals. The powerful are scattered and brought low. The rich are sent away empty. But the melodic leit motif of Mary’s lullaby affirms God as Savior, committed to the covenant, keeper of the promise made to Abraham and all his ancestors generations ago.
Mary’s lullaby is sung to offer comfort and to inspire action. But it’s more than that. Mary’s Song “extolls,” “magnifies,” “praises” the Lord. But not just for what has occurred in the past, but for what is to come in the new future God has made possible through the child who is to come: Emmanuel, God With Us.
There is good linguistic evidence to suggest that the term “lullaby” is derived from a Hebrew idiom “lilith-aba” — or “Lilith begone.” “Lilith was a demon/witch from early Israelite literature who was believed to steal little children. “Lilith-aba,” “Lilith begone” was part of the words sung over a child to protect the little one from evil. “Lilith Aba” became “lullaby.”
So perhaps the very first Hebrew lullabies were not just about putting small children into a sleeping stupor, but also keeping us alert to the approach of evil and to take decisive action against it. Mary’s first “lullaby” to Jesus, “The Magnificat,” was just such a tune. Mary’s hymn sang sweetly about the great gift she had received from God. But Mary’s hymn also sang fiercely about the actions and changes that would come about because of this new work of God in the world. Mary’s first “lullaby” sung to baby Jesus was not designed to put him to sleep, but to wake him up. “The Magnificat” woke the baby Jesus up to his mission and message just as the sound of his mother’s voice had awakened the baby John to his mission of proclamation and preparation.
The Messiah has come. Things will change. God is present and working great changes in the world according to God’s covenant and promises.
It is impossible to escape “Santa Claus” this time of year. No matter how hard we try to make Christmas about Jesus, that big fat guy in the red suit keeps showing up. Instead of getting sucked into a consumer-culture’s Santa Claus, maybe we should be telling the “lullaby” of the original Santa Claus, the actual Saint Nicholas, the Magnificat Nicholas.
Nicholas lived in the third century in what we now calls Asia Minor, or the Middle East. He rose in the ranks of the church and even attended the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. But instead of accepting his high role and rank in the new church hierarchy, Nicholas chose a different path. Having inherited significant wealth, Nicholas didn’t just refuse it, chuck it, or give it away in one big lump sum. Instead, Nicholas spent his life and his inheritance on saving others, especially the very people named in the Magnificat the poor, the hungry, the powerless, the condemned. Nicholas bought a young woman out of slavery (what today we would call the sex trade industry). Nicholas purchased pardons for those condemned to death because their primary crime was being poor and desperate. During the time of famine, Nicholas bought grain and distributed it for free to the most destitute and desperate.
Saint Nicholas lived the lullaby sung by Mary to Jesus before he was even born. St. Nicholas took words of “comfort and joy” and transformed them into witnesses of challenge and love. It is what we are called to do. It is what the Christmas story reminds us to do.
Our Response: A wedding ceremony was about to begin. Members of the bridal procession anxiously waited for the organ music to accompany them down the aisle. But there was only silence. One of the ushers tried to get the organist’s attention by snapping his fingers. Still there was silence. The usher then tried clapping his hands. Still no response. Finally, the now panicking usher called out the organist’s name. “Neil … Neil,” he shouted and all the people in church obediently dropped to their knees.
The Magnificat in today’s Gospel message is enough to have us all kneeling. In the worlds of “O Holy Night,”
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born! O night, O holy night, O night divine!
It’s not until you fall on your knees that you can stand up to your true self, to the person God is calling you to be this Christmas season.
Would you join with me now as we fall on our knees and sing our own personal Magnificat to God?
Luke’s word to us this day is that God hears those prayers, and that it is into just such situations of hopelessness and helplessness that the power of God is born. It is there that God entrusts the treasure, lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things — setting things right.
On a dark night in a feed stall in Bethlehem, the treasure which was entrusted to Mary became the treasure for us all. All the Herods and all the priests and all the powers-that-be gathered around to do their worst. But on Easter morning, just as Mary said, “God stretched out his mighty arm ….”
Credits: Reading from Long, Sweet, and Others mentioned here in.