My guess is that none of us were terribly surprised by the Christmas story that we just heard, from the second chapter of Luke's gospel. I have heard it every year of my life, and the details haven't changed--not even once. And perhaps part of the truth is that we don't really show up on Christmas Eve to be surprised. I suspect that many of us are more than happy to sing familiar carols, and hear the story that we might well be able to recite by heart. For many of us, this time together is a beautiful part of a season that awakens our more nostalgic sides; there's something about Christmas Eve that reminds us that there's still something childlike in all of us, something that delights in the warmth and wonder of familiarity.
And I wouldn't take that away from anyone. We need these times that seem to be a little bit outside the ordinary hustle and bustle, the ups and downs of everyday life. I think part of the wisdom of the Church is to embrace these seasonal repetitions that draw us back into this story that our hearts know so well, these times where we might find our souls a little more nourished and revived than usual. There's a reason we tend to like Christmas-miracle movies and stories that end happily and well, giving us glimpses of a hope and peace and joy and love that maybe we'd forgotten were there all along. There's something in us that wants that reminder.
One of our favorite family traditions is to read Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It's the story of a family of absolutely wretched children, the Horrible Herdmans, who orchestrate a hostile take-over of the local Presbyterian church's Christmas pageant, and chaos, hilarity and miracles ensue. It's wonderfully predictable. But one of the reasons I like it so much is that over the course of the story we get to watch these kids, who (the narrator tells us) "were just so all-around awful you could hardly believe they were real," learn the Christmas story for the first time. They'd never heard it, so the whole thing comes as a complete, and not altogether well-received, surprise.
And so it should. I think the Horrible Herdmans are on to something. It should be a surprise. Luke seems intent on that. If we were to start at the beginning of Luke's gospel we would hear wild stories of angels showing up and miraculous pregnancies; we'd hear Mary's song about a holy revolution that will bring down kings, and Zechariah's song about God's power and rescue, and unexpected light in the darkness of this world. By the time the first chapter ends we're ready for God to show up with angel armies and take down the tyrants and evil-doers, to sweep the world clean of the arrogant powerful and establish a holy kingdom with some great act of divine power--like any god we'd imagine would.
And instead, what we get is a poor couple, from a backwoods town, forced on a long journey, to be counted so that they can be appropriately taxed, by a far away and otherwise disinterested dictator. We find them arriving to a place where there should have been at least distant relatives ready to take them in--this is where Joseph's family is from, after all. But you get the feeling that news has managed to travel faster than Mary and Joseph were able to, so they arrive just behind the word of her unexpected pregnancy and find all the doors shut and the hotels booked. We find them caught by the urgency of labour, away from any support Mary might have had, and so, in spite of the pictures of a serene mother of God and her perfectly calm husband-to-be, I think we have to imagine a good deal of mess and terror in the magical starlight--sweat and blood and noise mingled with the smell of hay and animals. We find them doing what needs to be done, to care for their baby, wrapping him the way they'd seen their mothers and grandmothers do it, and laying him in the manger--the only place they could find--so they can get a moment's rest.
And this, the angels tell us, alongside the shepherds, is how the Saviour of the world arrives. This is how God breaks into the world. This is where heaven's kingdom that will know no end starts. This is what the heavenly chorus is singing about, what Mary and Elizabeth danced about, what Zechariah prophesied, what generations upon generations of God's people had been waiting for. This is the hope of the world, Luke would have us believe.
And if that's true, then perhaps what's most comforting about the story is not the happy way we can zone out and not miss anything we haven't heard before, but absurd fact that we haven't changed the details. We haven't tried to iron out the wrinkles. This is the story we tell. Year after year after year we come together to hear this bizarre story, to gather around it and insist that it has something to do with the way things really are, that this is somehow how God is with the world. Centuries of romanticizing the scene actually can't make it less odd; it's so stunning that we really can hear it again for the first time, because what Luke tells us about the ways and means of God with us is just never quite as quaint and comforting as we'd like it to be: it's always startling.
Or maybe it's comforting but not like we expect to be comforted. Maybe it's a comfort that doesn't lull us into passivity, but moves and shakes us to life. It's comfort that brings miraculous, energetic hope. I think perhaps it is oddly comforting to know that God is not unfamiliar with the plight of pregnant and abandoned teenagers; it's comforting to know that God is not unfamiliar with the challenges that face occupied peoples; it's comforting to know that God is not unfamiliar with the ways that the poor make do with what they have and what's at hand; it's comforting to see the Son of God in amongst the animals, the bread of life lying in a feed box; it's comforting that angel choirs will sing to the likes of shepherds--the outsiders and the good-for-nothing; it's comforting to see an unexpected girl pondering the wonders of heaven, even in the midst of trauma and turmoil; it's comforting to see the outcasts dancing, glorifying and praising God for all they had hear and seen. It's unsettlingly comforting to know that God Most High is concerned with these things most low.
It's comforting to know that somehow we've been brought into this story, unlikely as we might well be; that we too are welcomed to creep with shepherds to the edge of the manger and peak over the edge into the face of God-impossibly-flesh; that we too are caught up in angel song; that we too have been called into the company of the forgotten and abandoned and holy, so that we can witness one more time just how it really is that God is with us, the lengths to which God will go to love us--not because we are worthy, but simply because we are beloved. It's comforting, in the company of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, a most unlikely and unimpressive congregation, to know that there is nothing that we must or could do that would make God love us, or this so-loved world, more. This is the humble beginning of the promise that nothing in heaven, earth, or hell will separate us from God, ever again. This is where we start to see how far God will go to make that so.
There is, of course, much more to the story. When we arrive at the manger, we're never far from the cross. This unlikely baby is the donkey-riding king who will heal the sick and raise the dead, the temple-cleansing, emperor-defying, crucified and risen one; the unquenchable light of all things. But for now, for tonight, may we find comfort in the surprise that God would be with us in this way. Let us kneel at the manger, let us sing and pray and celebrate, caught by the surprising and surpassing beauty of this God who joins us in muck and wonder of life--who makes nobodies God-bearers and outcasts jump and sing and rejoice, who calls us to live, wherever and whenever we are, in all the hope, peace, joy, and love of heaven, here and now and forever.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.
May it be so.