Christmas Eve Meditation 2022, Colchester Federated Church (Luke 2:1-20)

As Christians the world over gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on this Christmas Eve night, we might be tempted to gloss over the details.  Because the Christmas story is a sacred story that we know well.  Though the awe-inspiring events of this most holy night continue to amaze and inspire.

The Christmas story begins in a rather startling way in the Gospel according to Luke.  The story begins with an allusion to the might and power of the Roman Empire: “A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[1]  We might want to quickly move on to the next part with Mary and Joseph and the baby laid in a manger, with the shepherds in the fields and the angels gloriously appearing in the night sky.  We might want to imagine the magi making their long journey to see the Messiah as Matthew tells that part of the story.  However, Luke wanted his audience to understand that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were historically grounded and complicated.

Complicated not just because of there being no room in the inn for Mary to give birth to her firstborn son.  Luke wanted us to be aware that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were impacted by the Roman Emperor Augustus ordering a census in the first place to exert control over people.  To ensure that people paid taxes to the Empire, and to know population numbers due to the possibility of military conscription.  We need to understand these historic circumstances and the political landscape Joseph and Mary found themselves in as people living under occupation by a powerful empire.  Why?  Because Jesus was born into a world of heartache, where people had hopes and people had legitimate fears.  Jesus—the Prince of Peace—was born into a world in desperate need of good news.  That’s what makes the story of his birth more hopeful and gives the weary world all the more reason to rejoice.

It’s hard to imagine in what other circumstances Joseph would travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea with his very pregnant fiancé Mary unless he had been commanded to do so.  That trip is around 80 miles.  To put that into perspective, it would be like traveling from Colchester to Danbury on foot.  This was a journey that Joseph and Mary would have been reticent to make.  Not to mention that other people had to make similar journeys because the census was for “all the world” (or at least for all the Roman world).[2]  By the time Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, weary from their travels, there weren’t any rooms left to have even temporary lodging as other travelers were able to secure.

And it is in these historic and personal circumstances—a powerful empire and lowly people, a mandatory census, a young, pregnant woman and her fiancé making a long journey, no room in the inn, desperate lodging among animals—that Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is born into our world.  Humble beginnings.  Surprising circumstances.  Complicated historical events. 

No wonder the shepherds were so perplexed when the angel said to them “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”[3]  Those shepherds must have assumed that this most holy night was like any other night as they kept watch over their flock on the outskirts of Bethlehem.  It would have seemed unbelievable for the Messiah to be born amid these circumstances.

Let it not be lost on us that when the angel stood before them (and the glory of the Lord shone around them), the shepherds were terrified.  Though the first words the angel uttered were, “Do not be afraid” and “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”[4]  Not just for some people, but for all the people.  Or as the Gospel of John begins, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[5]  Good news of great joy for all the people.  The light of all people.  This is good news for everyone.

  For the miracle of Christmas—this story of Christ’s birth—is the Incarnation.  That’s a churchy word that means embodied or taking on flesh.  Christians dare to believe in these complicated times that Jesus is God-with-us now and forever.  It was the writer Madeleine L’Engle who reflected, “Don’t try to explain the Incarnation to me! It is further from being explainable than the furthest star in the furthest galaxy.  It is love, God’s limitless love enfleshing that love into the form of a human being, Jesus, the Christ, fully human and fully divine.  Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ, the Maker of the universe or perhaps many universes, willingly and lovingly leaving all that power and coming to this poor, sin-filled planet to live with us for a few years to show us what we ought to be and could be.  Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine, to show us what it means to be made in God’s image.”[6]

This is some amazing news.  Christ came among us to show us what we ought to be and could be.  Because we too are made in the very image and likeness of God.  Our Choir here at Colchester Federated Church sang an Introit a few Sundays ago called “When God Is a Child.”  The great hymn writer Brian Wren wrote the lyrics, “When God is a child there’s joy in our song.  The last shall be first and the weak shall be strong, and none shall be afraid.”[7]  Good news of great joy for all the people.  Do not be afraid.

My friends, we have gathered here on this Christmas Eve night in this candlelit sanctuary in person or online with different life circumstances.  Joyful and sorrowful.  Peaceful and conflicted.  Fearful and hopeful.  And everything in between.  The truth is that we cannot know every aspect of each other’s stories.  Because we never fully know what others are carrying, it is all the more reason to be compassionate.  For we remember on this most holy night that Christ willingly and lovingly left power behind to come to this poor, sin-filled planet to show us for all time what we ought to be and what we can be.  To make us understand that if I am created in the image and likeness of God, then so are you.  So is everyone we encounter.  Jesus embodied the compassion of God and taught us how to live and how to love.  This is good news of great joy for all the people.  Thanks be to God, and Merry Christmas.  Amen.

[1] Luke 2:1-2, NRSV.
[2] Luke 2:1.
[3] Luke 2:11.
[4] Luke 2:10.
[5] John 1:3-5.
[6] Madeleine L’Engle as quoted in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation “God in the Galaxies and in Humanity,” Week Fifty-One: Incarnation.
[7] Refrain from “When God Is a Child,” Words: Brian Wren & Music: John Carter, Copyright 1989 Hope Publishing Company.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash