Christmas Eve – December 24, 2019
It was over twenty-two years ago that I graduated from seminary in North Carolina and began serving as the associate pastor of a mid-sized urban congregation in Newport News, Virginia. When I had been there for a short while, the time came for me to baptize an infant, something our senior pastor Larry graciously allowed me to do. Early in the Sunday morning service, I dutifully called the young couple forward to where the baptismal font was located and led them through the liturgy printed in our hymnal wherein the mother and father made those beautiful old promises to, by their teaching and example, to raise this infant as a Christian in a Christian home, and in Christ’s church.
When the appointed time came for me to administer the water, I dipped my hand in the font, reached over to the child still in his mother’s arms, and placed my wet fingers on her tiny forehead and baptized her in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The following week, Larry spoke to me about the baptism the Sunday before and told me that in the future, it was necessary that when I baptized infants, I took them from the arms of their parents and baptized these children while holding them in my arms. “It is important symbolism,” Larry said. “It represents the parents’ giving their child to God.”
I thought about this for a few moments, the obvious mistake I had made, and then it occurred to me: the few children I had baptized up to that point were children I baptized while working and studying as a seminary hospital chaplain. I never held those children in my arms because it was never an option in those neonatal intensive care units, with all of the tubes, the sensors, and the wires. Those children were tethered, tethered to machinery keeping them alive in ways that precluded my holding them in that unique and special way clergy are blessed and trusted to do so in the everyday course of our religious vocation.
Which brings me to Christmas and Saint Luke’s telling of it: in his gospel, Luke makes a point of what is sometimes called “the scandal of particularity” by making it clear that Jesus was born in a specific historical location (in Bethlehem of Judea) during a specific historical time (during the reigns of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius), born to a specific family (Mary and Joseph). In this very specific space and time, our God is untethered from heaven, untethered from everything that could separate sinful, broken humanity from the glory of God.
As Robert Redman writes, “modern humanity seems to expect that if God reveals himself at all (a big “if”), then God is revealed in universal truths and principles, and not particularly in space and time in history. The older philosophers expressed it this way: the finite is not capable of the infinite (finitus non capax infiniti). As G.E. Lessing put it, ‘the accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.’ On this view, one ‘marginal Jew’ living in the first century CE in a backwater province of the Roman Empire could not possibly be the full and complete revelation of God.”(1)
Yet the Christmas story is God’s counterargument to all of this. In this scandalous story we tell and retell every Christmas Eve, God’s “decisive act of revelation and reconciliation” is not universal principles or truths, but a baby, a fulfillment of the age-old covenant promise found in Leviticus 26:12: “And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”(2)
In so many ways, the Christmas story is a story of letting go. In the birth of Jesus, God’s only son is placed into the arms of Mary and Joseph, and as the ministry of Jesus unfolds on earth, his life is increasingly placed into the arms of sinful humanity as he subjects himself to all of the complexities of human relationships, human brokenness, and human sin.
Each Christmas, we read Isaiah 9:6, and we hear the words, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” When we consider God’s great gift of God’s only son Jesus, it may be that the most difficult word in this old prophesy to grasp is not “son” or “authority” or even any of the four titles given to the messiah in this text. Instead, the most difficult word in this prophesy may be the verb “give.”
In the birth of Jesus, God truly and definitively gives God’s only son to us, giving as if we would be wise and faithful stewards of this gift, yet giving unto us knowing that we won’t.
A couple of autumns ago, I was attending a continuing education event in Fairfax that I realized was very near the house my wife’s family lived in from the from the time she was in high school until 2003. During our lunch break, I thought it would be fun to drive to the old house, the place where I asked my future in-laws if I could marry their daughter, the place where our firstborn celebrated her first Christmas. I thought I would drive to the house and take a photo of it and text it to my wife.
I was surprised when I arrived in the neighborhood a block off Braddock Street. I noticed the house was neglected, a shadow of its former self. The paint had severely faded. The hedges, once lovingly planted and cared for were all gone. The lawn was full of bare patches. Things looked so bad that I had to double and triple-check to make sure I was in the right place. I could not bring myself to take the picture.
Driving home from Fairfax, it became clear to me how true it is that selling something, that truly giving something over to someone else is such a binary choice. The same is true about giving something away; you cannot kind of do it. My own father and aunt are heartbroken about the current state of disrepair of their own home place, how they will drive out of their way to avoid seeing it, a property that was sold probably twenty-five years ago.
And still, Isaiah says that this child is given “to us.” Luke’s angels tell the shepherds that this child is born “unto you.” In this “scandal of the particular,” at a specific time in history, in a specific place in the ancient Near East, to a specific unwed couple of the lower class, God’s only son is given to us, the infinite enfleshed in the finite. God is revealed not in power or might or prestige but in poverty, among the farm animals, in a backwater town of an occupied land, and the first people to hear the news are not the mighty but the lowly shepherds, people possibly not included in Caesar’s census, probably because they were deemed too insignificant to count.
In the birth of Jesus, God truly gives to us God’s son and in so doing, gives to us permission to let go of so many of the things that stand between ourselves and God or ourselves and others.
When I was in college, I owned a car whose radio only played AM stations, and at 11:00 on summer nights, I used to drive around Richmond listening to a thirty-minute syndicated program called “The Little Country Church,” and I can remember the host delivering a sermon one night where he said that the Lord’s blessings cannot be poured into hands that are already full.”
And that is Christmas, the miracle of the incarnation, the scandal of the particular. Like the parents in our baptismal services, God’s hands are somehow miraculously emptied of the infant savior as he exits the birth canal and is placed into the arms of a poor, unwed mother, and in so doing, is placed into our hands, as God’s only son is entrusted to us.
And when we turned away, and our love failed, God’s love remained, and remains, steadfast. As he grew and as he preached and demonstrated his message of a kingdom so unlike the ways we so often choose to live, and as he attempted to pour his blessings into our already-full and busy hands, we crucified him for it, nailing his hands to the cross. And even then, he would rise from death, the one given for us dies and rises again, giving us back our lives, our dreams, and that persistent, unshakable hope that God is not done with this world, the hope that God is not done with our lives, the hope that God is not done with our situations, the hope that we are never alone.
The Lord’s blessings cannot be poured into hands that are already full. I do not believe I have met a single person during this season of Advent who is not stressed, frazzled, over-committed, and very, very tired. In fact, the term “the holidays” has become shorthand for “Like you, I am far too busy too think straight. Can we get back to this in January?” There are gifts to purchase, so many parties to attend, so much year-end stuff to accomplish, so many miles to travel. We attempt to check the boxes on overloaded todo lists. We attempt to find a hint of white space in overloaded calendars while hearing songs playing through the speakers above our heads about heavenly peace, silent nights, and peace on earth. Amidst the stress and the noise, the hustle and the bustle, it all sounds so fanciful, as real as marching nutcrackers and sugarplum fairies.
And then somehow, it all stops. The stores close, the guests arrive, the food comes out of the ovens and we gather here tonight to retell the story of a night that began like any other and ended such that for the two-thousand years ever since, we have used this night to mark human time on earth, the time before this night and the time after, all of it because a child is born unto us and a savior is given to us. On this night of nights, God seeks to truly give, to truly pour into our full and overloaded hands blessings beyond compare—beyond compare because these blessings become the lens through which we regard everything else competing for our ever-limited time, energy, and attention.
It seems that almost as soon as the stores begin loading their shelves with decorations and filling the air with songs of Christmas, we start hearing the adverts aimed at those New Year’s resolutions, resolutions that invariably last from January first to around Ash Wednesday. Buy this new machine and your body will be transformed to look like the model on television. Join this gym and revolutionize your life. Embrace this new habit and give up that old, bad habit. The new year will be filled with blessings, the year we have all been waiting for, if only we are disciplined enough to somehow birth it into being. Fill those hands. It is the only way to truly live.
Or maybe not.
At its best, Christmas is about truly letting go; letting go of worry, letting go of fear, letting go of the toxic and idolatrous notion that that we are nothing more than what we do and that everything depends upon us. Christmas is about letting go because it is about that “scandal of the particular,” that beautiful truth that the God who created the universe, set the planets in motion, and spangled the heavens has intervened in human history in a very specific way. This God has intervened in a specific historical location (in Bethlehem of Judea) during a specific historical time (during the reigns of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius), born to a specific family (Mary and Joseph). In this very specific space and time, our God is untethered from heaven, untethered from everything that could separate sinful, broken humanity from the glory of God.
All of which means that this God is specific enough to be present and working in my life and your life and our life together in ways that both allow and enable us to truly let go in this year to come, trusting the God who gave God’s own and only Son, an infant, to and for us. As such, 2020 can be a great year of letting go, of opening our hands so that God’s blessings can be poured into them. The same God who intruded into Mary’s life, Joseph’s life, the lives of the shepherds and the life of this world intrudes on this night of nights into our lives so that we may hold on to the life that really is life, life and life abundant.
God is with us. We are not alone and not everything depends upon you or me. It is good news for today and hope for the world. Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
(1) David L. Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.