Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I would first like to welcome all of you here on this holy night. If you are a member of this parish – welcome. If you are visiting – welcome. If you’re not sure why you’re here – welcome. You’re in a good place on a Holy Night.
I would like to tell you all about a friend of mine named Sam, whom I have been friends with since high school. It’s a bit of a challenge to describe Sam – he’s over six feet tall, and has a big long red beard, and comes decently close to passing for Billy Gibbons, the guitarist in ZZ Top. Sam lives in Austin, but he usually visits Houston over Christmas, and we usually gather annually at the Gingerman Pub – one of my preferred places for theological reflection.
At one such gathering several years ago, Sam and I talked about children. He and his
wife do not have children, at least not yet. The stumbling block for them was not all the necessary life changes that happen when you have kids, they seem to be fine with all that. Rather, his uncertainty about having children instead seemed to be about the general state of the world as it is today. And he’s right. The world can be a scary place. There are no guarantees for any of us, so as a father of three boys myself, I can relate to his ambivalence about bringing up children in such a place.
I do a lot of premarital counseling with couples who are getting married, and one of the things I always make sure we talk about is children and parenting. What I hear from almost all couples I meet with is a variation on the same thing: they want to have children…sometime, but they want to wait until everything is just right – after their school loans are paid off, after the big raise at their job, once they move into the right house. And I humor them and their sincere desire for perfect timing. But in my mind, this is what I’m thinking: “you’re going to get pregnant! While you’re still in graduate school! While you’re living in a tiny house or apartment with no nursery!” Because there is no such thing as a perfect time for a baby to be born.
Although most manger scenes we see in front yards, in churches, or on front of Christmas cards depict a calm and tranquil birth – the birth of Jesus was anything but tranquil. Jesus was not born at some perfect time, but during a challenging time in which Israel was dominated by the Roman Empire and political tension in Jerusalem was like a powder keg ready to explode. Jesus was born into a broken and messy world, a world that refused from the beginning to make room for him. The world Jesus was born into was a dangerous world, one in which King Herod, a madman and Roman ruler over Judea, upon hearing of Christ’s birth, feared for his tenuous reign. He ordered that all children under the age of two years old in and around Bethlehem be executed.
I sometimes wonder why God didn’t choose an easier time, or at least a more peaceful and less violent time, for Christ to be born. But it seems that even for God, there is no perfect time to be born into this world - except that there is. The perfect time to be born is the present. It’s right now. At this exact moment, how many babies are joining the human family across languages and nations? At this exact moment, how many children are born in perilous situations? Now is the perfect time, even if it does seem dark.
When the world gets dark, when we get scared, what we want most is not that it would all go away, but rather that we would not be alone in the midst of it. That is what Christmas is all about. Tonight we celebrate the incarnation – the gracious act of God who became a physical, flesh and blood person, like you and me, to walk with us, to lead us out of the darkness and into the light. With Jesus’ birth, God enters the world, as a baby, and in the moment of that birth, the infant God blesses all of creation, even the parts that are broken, dark, or dangerous.
Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst Pittman McGehee reminds us that etymologically the words “blessing” and “blood” come from the same root. They are part of the same thing, a reminder to us that there is no such thing as blessing without struggle, just as there can be no struggle without blessing. Incarnation comes out of struggle, it is not about perfection.
Some time ago I listened to an interview with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, now in his eighties. The interviewer asked “Your Holiness, you are the thirteenth reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion – do you have any remembrance of your previous incarnations?” The Dalai Lama replied “I cannot even remember what I had for breakfast this morning!” The point is this – incarnation is not perfection, or perfect timing. It is simply about showing up, and blessing.
My friend Sam and I talked the other day. When I mentioned our conversation we had
about children at the Gingerman, he said “We’re not afraid to have kids anymore. We’re ready.”
While his wife is not pregnant that I know of, I do hope for a phone call sometime in the future from him. A phone call that would capture the mystery, hope, and anticipation of incarnation in two joyful words: “We’re pregnant!” Merry Christmas to all of you. AMEN.