Luke 2:2: This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
I know some version of this sermon gets preached every year, but it seems especially appropriate in 2020.
The first Christmas was not filled with parties and pastries and nostalgia. There were no pageants, no candlelight services, no boiled custard* and no coconut cake. Mary and Joseph didn’t even get one of my Aunt Susan’s sausage balls to celebrate the birth of their god-child.
I know you’ve heard this sermon ad nauseam, that the first Christmas was spare and sparse and simple. I know you’ve heard it preached to mean that you don’t need to wear yourself out buying gifts and performing tradition. I know you’ve heard this sermon meant to encourage you to appreciate the spiritual implications of the holiday instead of the commercialization.
I know. It’s an old trope.
And still, it bears repeating: the first Christmas wasn’t even Christmas. It wasn’t a tradition or a federal holiday or a family tradition. The first Christmas wasn’t spare and simple because God wanted us to resist the excesses of capitalism (though I believe God to be totally in favor of that) or because God wanted to give us a reason to dress tiny kids up as middle eastern sheep herders (though, again, I do think God giggles at that every year) or because God believes in the sanctity of the nuclear family and wanted a reason to force everyone to return to their family of origin once a year (definitely, decidedly, wholeheartedly KNOW that God doesn’t endorse this one – just read Jesus or Paul on the subject).
The first Christmas was not tame or traditional or comforting: it was terrifying. It irrevocably changed the experience of being human. The first Christmas involved registration mandated by a tyrant, arduous travel to fulfill governmental demands, hard and unrelenting poverty, confusing angel appearances, displaced people, stinging situations of social shame, foreign leaders working undercover to evade a murderous leader, and an orchestrated slaughter of children.
Christmas is not meant to be calm, comforting or familiar. It is not meant to be an occasion for us small humans to assert our power and control over our tiny lives by doing the same things year in and year out. Christmas is not a safety blanket or a cocoon or an anesthetic to lull us into believing everything is just fine.
I wish it was. But it is not.
Christmas is our marking God’s decision to enter into the world She created in the form of a human person. Christmas is when we remember that God loves us so much, desires so deeply for us to know that love, wants to be WITH us, that God took on human flesh in order to make it so.
Christmas is when we celebrate that God is here. That there is no part of being human that God doesn’t understand, hasn’t experienced. God KNOWS. God KNOWS what it is like to live in chaos, in violence, in uncertainty, in chaos. God KNOWS. God showed up here on earth in human form in the midst of all of it.
God is here. God loves us so much that God chose to join us, to experience what life is like in these scratchy & sensuous, constricting & conscious, fragile & finite bodies. And that doesn’t change, whether we are in the midst of a tyrannical census or a grinding depression or an unending pandemic.
I don’t know what happens, next. Things could get better; they might get worse. Given the witness of scripture, I’m inclined to believe that – at least for those of us who have long squandered our abundance and oppressed the poor and selfishly hoarded everything from toilet paper to healthcare – God’s justice is not going to feel very *pleasant.*
I don’t know if our lives will ever return to what they were, or if they should. I don’t know if we will get to celebrate Christmas in whatever tradition we’ve been formed next year or not. If one virus mutation could take advantage of our particular human cruelties in this way – disrupt and disturb and destroy so much – then who is to say that any of our habits or practices or expectations are safe from being demolished?
What I do know is that even in our cruelty, even in our human-created chaos, even in the worst possible situations, the most stubborn sinfulness, the horrors of horrors that we humans have managed to manufacture: God has not abandoned us. God has not given up on us. God still – even here, even now – desires to be with us. God still – even here, even now – desires goodness for us. And despite the ways we think and act and plan, God’s goodness is better than anything we can ask or imagine.
And I believe that God is using this time, in particular, to reveal to us again what divine goodness consists of: mutuality, care, justice and mercy. A world where, yes, in fact, the rich get poorer and the poor ARE more comfortable.
God is here. With us.
Sometimes, that’s comforting. Other times, it’s terrifying. A lot depends on your particular social location and whether or not you need to be lifted up or removed from your self-imposed throne, filled with good things or sent away, empty.
Do not be afraid: this is good news of great joy for all people.
*boiled custard, for my non-southern friends, is the far superior egg-based holiday beverage.