“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”
The Christmas story in St. Luke’s version has to be one of the most familiar of all the stories in the Bible. All of us, no matter our age, are drawn to stories, whether spoken, or written, or portrayed on screen or stage. We love a good story and there has never been a more beautiful nor a more hopeful story than the one told by St. Luke in the gospel passage we have just heard.
I imagine that for most, this is not a new story, though there might be a few here tonight who are hearing it for the first time. For most of us though, it is a story we have heard or seen multiple times.
We begin with the stable, the straw, the poverty, the cold, and the darkness, all these form the setting for the ultimate gift. Into this setting a baby comes, God manifest in flesh. Outside the setting is a regular world but inside is God’s supreme message of Love, given to us in a tiny baby. A baby who can be seen and touched and loved. It is a story of contrasts, the hard life of the poor, the helplessness of infancy and the unmeasured outpouring of divine Love.
Maybe at some time in your past you have portrayed a role in this story yourself. Perhaps you were an animal, a sheep, a cow, or a donkey? Or an angel? Or you played Mary or Joseph or perhaps even the infant Jesus.
Even if you did not personally act in it, I ask you to think about which role in this great story you identify with tonight.
In thinking about this familiar account, I think we can see a part of ourselves in each role. The angels sing out with joy announcing the incarnation, “God has come into the world to become one of us.” The animals seemingly take it all in, bringing their steamy warmth to the family. The shepherds come to see what has happened and kneel in awe. Joseph offers protection to his family, and Mary, lovingly cares for her newborn. Both earthly parents trust that while they do not understand it all, God is with them in their responsibility.
Stay with the story a bit. It is both calming, with the hope it brings, as well as overwhelming in its world-shattering news.
And where do we fit into this scene?
I venture to say that like the generations before us we are an important part of the story. It is not all nostalgia and looking back at an event thousands of years ago.
Rather, tonight we come together and make this story real. We participate in bringing the message of the story real. Real, in the present, real, in the year of our Lord 2022. We take on the traits of all in the story and bring it alive again.
Let me start with the manger. We are told that the infant was laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. Much of our world today is like that inn, there is no room for Jesus in it. We who have come here tonight are asked to open our hearts to Jesus. We are asked to become that manger, offering the baby a place to be. In our prayers tonight our hearts are filled with the presence of Jesus.
We are the manger.
The angels who announce this glorious birth do so in song. Even those of us who cannot really carry a tune, sing tonight. Together our singing brings great conviction that Christ is born.
We are the angel choir.
The shepherds, to whom the angels sang, have come to Bethlehem to see what the Lord has done and on returning to their home tell all they see about this. We also have come to see the beautiful wonder that God has brought. And later we will share with others the love of God as we have experienced it.
We are the shepherds.
The animals, the sheep, the cows, and the donkey rest in the calm, grateful to be in the company of this baby. They are the witnesses of this birth. And in return they offer him what they have to give, their company. Tonight, we, who are here now, also rest in the quiet calm of the space. We have come to be near Jesus, offering our very being to him with our presence.
We are the animals.
Joseph, stands near to the manger, in case he is needed, and offers light to the scene. He assists Mary in caring for this infant, whom he has been told is God’s son. While this may have been overwhelming to him, he trusted in what God had told him. We too trust in God’s love.
We are Joseph.
I want to say a bit more about Mary. Like any new mother, after she had given birth, she sits and watches her baby. And as she watches, she takes care of his needs and begins to know him. With all that happened that night, the manger, the animals, the angels, and shepherds, we are told she treasured it all. And more than that she wondered what it will mean, what this baby will grow up to do, and why he has come into the world. We too wonder along with her, even though we know the rest of that baby’s life story. We wonder the meaning of it all.
In that we are Mary. We have begun to know Jesus, and we desire to deepen our knowledge of this special baby. We too, wonder the meaning of his birth. Why has God sent his son, what is his purpose in being with us?
The first sentence from tonight’s epistle helps us to know at least a part of the answer.
We heard from the Revised Standard Version:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.
The New English Bible translates the word salvation as healing. God has appeared to bring healing to all. Healing means wholeness. It is not the absence of disease or pain, nor is it perfection. A life that is truly whole includes everything. It includes the sad and the joyful, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. While we might want to separate it out and take away all the negative, God comes to make our lives whole. He comes to put it all together with His Love. He takes all the parts and unites it through his being.
Some of the people I have known who have demonstrated best this peace of wholeness are those nearing the end of their lives. They may not be cured of their disease, but they are whole. And it is beautiful to experience this God-given completeness. Jesus comes into the world to unite us with God, offering us redemption and a means to connect with God’s love.
We are Mary treasuring and pondering the meaning of this baby.
Regardless of how many times we have heard this story, tonight we become the story. We take on all the roles. We experience the story. We are not just here to commemorate God’s entrance into human life; rather we come to experience God’s coming among us. For the present moment Christ’s manifestation to the world is through us. We will be His presence in the world, but first we must have His presence in us.
Because tonight we too rest with Christ in his mother’s arms being kept safe by God’s grace and God’s love. We are in the story, for sure. We belong in that love; we are a part of that love.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying Glory to God in the highest.” Enter into the story with awe, and sing out His Glory.