Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera
It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold; “Peace on the earth, good will to men, From Heav’n’s all-gracious King.” The world in solemn stillness lay, To hear the angels sing.
On Christmas eve what have we come to see, what are we looking for? For many of us we’ve come to indulge in a bit of whimsy –for an hour or so to participate in the reenactment of a fairy story. Why do we come? We come because stories – fairy – or otherwise matter. We are storied beings, and this story is about God with us.
Many of us fear that our culture no longer understands the nuanced p ower of story. Stories are things we tell our children as an entertainment before they absorb a scientific simplified picture of the universe. Thus, we fail to see just how much our experience of reality is still story-shaped because we easily forget that we are storied beings. So, the important question concerns which stories are shaping us? The wrong stories – stories that support domination are as Ukraine is witness to – dangerous stories.
Like Lucy, we love to reduce life’s complexities to a series of true or false answers. But the best stories are never simply true or false. Instead, we might better ask – is this story effective or not? How complete or incomplete a description of experience is it? Is it expansive or restrictive – inclusive or exclusionary? Stories that are more complete, more expansive, more inclusionary are more effective than stories that restrict human experience, imprisoning us in definitions of identity and worldview that are too small and cramped to allow us to flourish.
For Christians, the birth narratives told by Matthew and Luke are stories that create meaning and a sense of purpose – from which flow our actions that shape the way we are in the world.
When it comes to the story of the birth of Jesus it’s impossible to banish Luke’s version we heard tonight from our minds. The props and cast of Luke’s story mean we now can’t think of the Christmas story without the mental images of a ruined stable, bestrewed with straw; with grazing sheep, lowing cattle, incredulous shepherd yokels, and an angel or two singing: glory to God in the highest and peace among all people on earth.
On Christmas Eve is this the story we’ve come to hear, and to for brief moment reflect upon, even though many of us still fall into the trap of wondering if it’s true or not. Many people today, among them many Christians, question the truth of the Jesus birth stories. N.T. Wright asks – if someone was going to invent a story of the Creator becoming one with all of creation, why on earth would you write it this way? If you wanted to make a convincing case for the Creator’s entry within the tent of creation, you probably would write a more historically persuasive story from the ones we have from Luke and Matthew.
Luke, and much less so Matthew, offer accounts of enchantment. But the modern mind is suspicious of enchantment. For us, truth emerges only after we’ve edited out all elements of enchantment. We prefer the cold hard facts of a disenchanted view of things. It’s the facts, ma’am, just the facts. As Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday reminds us, only the facts matter. Or that seem to matter.
I say seem to matter because while our modern minds reject stories of enchantment – after all that’s why we call them fairy stories – we crave a steady diet of enchantment through the books we read, the TV dramas and the films we devour. We’ve banished the elements of enchantment from our intellectual diet, only to find ourselves surreptitiously binging on enchantment as entertainment.
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
There’s Luke’s story – a story with universal appeal – and then we also have Matthew’s story. Last Sunday in How did Joseph really feel?, I offered a somewhat controversial take on Matthew’s Jesus birth story. I have to say I’ve received more feedback than usual from this sermon – for which I am thankful. It seems we pay attention only when we’re jolted into listening.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
Oh, hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
Matthew sets his account of the birth of Jesus within a context of insecurity, danger and violence – which in all its implied horror – is so utterly familiar to us today. His is a story set in a context of political tyranny and ruthless dynastic violence. His is a story of flight from violence, the perils of refugee existence. No sooner born, the Christ child must be protected from the threat of imminent death by his parents seeking political refuge.
Joseph and his young family probably fled southwest from Bethlehem – along a well-trodden route – crossing into Egypt at the narrow Isthmus of al Qantara. They would have followed the refugee road taken by Abraham (Gen 12:10), Jacob and his sons and a long list of unnamed others before them. After murdering every year-old male child in the region of Bethlehem in an attempt to catch the infant Christ in his infanticidal net, it’s unlikely that Herod would have been content to let them quietly slip away. After arrival in Egypt, how many times did the family have to move to escape his spies?
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus remained in Egypt for about 2-years – the time estimated between Jesus’ birth and the death of Herod the Great. Matthew does not provide us with this level of detail, but the point to note is that his narrative sets the birth of Jesus in the borderlands. It’s possible to read into Matthew’s narrative the borderland as not simply a place separating danger from safety, but also as a metaphor dividing Israel’s past trauma from its future hope – the separation between fear and hope. As we are daily called to witness events on our Southern border, borders are places where fear and hope collide.
Today it’s estimated that upwards of 300 million men, women, and children are travelling on the refugee highways and byways, over back roads, and through barely passable jungle tracks, over mountain ranges and across seering deserts. In the last year the US has accepted a million refugees – and we still don’t have enough people to fill the jobs in crucial sectors of the economy.
Despite Matthew’s more patriarchal tone (it’s all about Joseph and Mary is just wallpaper) sounding in our modern ears – it is Matthew’s setting for the birth of Jesus that carries an uncomfortable power to confront us. The question remains –this Christmas Eve why have we come, what are we looking for? Can I suggest we’ve come to find Emmanu-El, God with us.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,I came upon a midnight clear- Edward H Sears
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
Oh, rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
Matthew’s is a story that can only discomfort us. It leaves us with an uncomfortable suspicion. We constantly push awareness of refugee plight to the back of our minds – averting our gaze, or spouting copious facts to explain it all away. We harbor an uncomfortable suspicion that perhaps it’s among the crowds of mothers and fathers wearing only the clothes on their backs, carrying infants in their arms, toddler and older children clinging to their legs with tear-stained cheeks and fear in their eyes – patiently waiting on Mexico’s side of our border fence -that this is what Emmanu-El -God with us looks like– a God who is to be found on any border or boundary fence where fear and hope collide.