However, this year is unlike any in our collective memory. This year we have been reminded again and again that the best way we can express our love for our family, neighbors, and community is by staying home. By calling our loved ones and sending notes instead of dropping in for a visit. By sharing in holiday meals over zoom, google meet, or facetime instead of in one festively decorated dining room. We have attended church online, even as a piece of us aches to sit in a crowded church, taking in the fragrant smell of poinsettias and incense, the lilt of children’s laughter, the beauty and majesty of the flickering candles as the gathered people sing Silent Night.
The joy of this Christmas is laced with grief, loneliness, fear, and anxiety. Over one point seven million families around the world will spend today longing for loved ones who died from COVID-19. Even as we hold onto the hope we see on the horizon with the first round of vaccine distribution, an eventual return to the gatherings we love, and discovering new normals, we cannot forget the pain that this year has held for so many.
In some ways, the pain of this year helps us to better understand the mixture of emotions that Mary and Joseph would have been grappling with as they awaited the birth of their child. Their love was not a Hallmark special, even if we want to pretend otherwise. Mary really was an unwed, teenage mother who embraced a vision proclaimed by an angel. Joseph really was committing his life to a woman that society would encourage him to leave. The birth of their child was not attended by doting grandmothers and aunts. It was in a manger, as they travelled home to be counted for a government census.
The birth of Jesus of Nazareth was anything but perfect.
It was in equal parts messy, mystical, strange, and wonderful.
Most of all, the birth of Jesus was a proclamation of God’s love for creation.
Christina Rossetti captured the meaning of this moment in her Christmas hymn:
Love came down at Christmas,
love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas;
star and angels gave the sign.
Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
worship we our Jesus,
but wherewith for sacred sign?
Love shall be our token,
love be yours and love be mine;
love to God and others,
love for plea and gift and sign.
It is no mistake that we witness this story of extraordinary love through the lens of a handful of shepherds and their faithful sheep. On the night Jesus was born, shepherds were guarding their flock, when suddenly an angel, a creature of light, stood before them in the night sky. They were terrified. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).
For a few brief moments after, the night sky lit up, and it was as if all the heavens were singing God’s praises, while the shepherds stood awestruck in the fields. When it was over, the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem to go and see this child, God’s love in human form.
I have often wondered what the shepherds did with their sheep as they made their way to see Jesus. Did the shepherds leave their flock behind? While a shepherd might circle a route, leaving a flock untended for a short while, this trip to the village would have taken them away for an extended period. It would mean a predator could attack the flock, risking the shepherd’s very livelihood.
Or maybe, the shepherds brought their flock with them, and overwhelmed the narrow streets of the small village. If the shepherds and their flock all knelt down before Jesus, in and surrounding the manger, then maybe the story is reminding us that God did not just come for all of humanity, but rather for all of creation? Showing us that not only did the angel proclaim good news to the most ordinary of people, but the animals they tended as well.
With or without their sheep, the shepherds were not coming from the next field over. They traversed rocky terrain, from the mountainside and down into the village. The journey, whether short or long, would have tired out their flock. Yet any weary feet or hooves were forgotten by the mere presence of the child lying in the manger. As the shepherds and their flock returned back into the fields, they were “...glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen…”(Luke 2:20).
The shepherds and their flocks were changed by God becoming flesh, by experiencing a radical and unconditional love in human form. And every time we pause to remember that God has come to journey among us, we too, are changed. Because the greatest gift of all is the gift of our God, the God of all creation, choosing to become incarnate; choosing to become flesh; choosing to become “emmanuel” or rather, God with us.
Emmanuel was born to show all of creation just how much God loves us, to show us that even in the harshest moments of our lives, the Love of Christ is always with us.
Even in this most impossible and challenging of years, we know that the Love of Christ is with us. Carrying us, encouraging us, inspiring us to keep moving forward towards the dream God has for all of creation.
God is with us. This is the greatest, most unimaginable of gifts. Our faith calls us to join the work of transforming creation through our acts of love. Love of God, love of neighbor.
As we take in the mixture of emotions this day holds for us in 2020, I invite each of us to spend some time this Christmas season reflecting on what ways we have experienced God’s love this year, and how we hope to engage in acts of love in the coming year. Amen.
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