I love traditions, and the holidays are full of them, but they come with a down-side. They are, by their very nature, predictable. We love traditions because they happen in a certain way, at a certain time, lending order to a chaotic world.
This is also why traditions become such a rich source of humor — think “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” “A Christmas Story,” or “Home for the Holidays.” We all know, on some level, that the illusory order promised by our most beloved traditions can never hold up to the chaos of the world around us.
Take, for example, one of my favorite Christmas carols, “Silent Night,” which we’ll be singing at the close of worship tonight.
Silent Night, Holy Night / All is calm, all is bright / round yon virgin mother and child, / Holy Infant, so tender and mild, / sleep in heavenly peace…
That’s lovely, but how could it possibly be true? “Away in a Manger” perhaps gets a little closer to the truth with “the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,” but it then goes on to imagine that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” In fact, the story told by scripture is filled with noise.
Finding no place in the inn, the Holy Family gives birth to their first-born child in a barn. Miles away, a group of working-class shepherds encounter an angel of the Lord accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host who cannot contain themselves as they break into songs of praise, saying “glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” The shepherds immediately depart for Bethlehem, where they find Jesus and his family in a stable.
Why do you suppose we insist on imagining that Jesus and his family were so different from the rest of us, especially when the story goes to such great lengths to show us that in Jesus, God enters the stories of ordinary people, just as they are, to show God’s extraordinary love.
For instance, the shepherds whom God chose to be the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth. Not only were they out working the third shift, keeping watch over their flocks by night; they were not welcome most anywhere else. Shepherds’ work was not highly favored, and the people who did such work were looked on with suspicion not only by the secular authorities who worried they were troublemakers, but by the religious authorities as well, since they were too busy working to come to worship and were ritually unclean, so unwelcome in the Temple. In other words, that first Christmas Night, the shepherds — unlike us — weren’t at church, and that’s who God chose to break the news.
Once they arrived at the barn in Bethlehem, I imagine they found a royal mess. Mary had just given birth in a barn. That can’t have been easy, or quiet. Joseph was a new father who hadn’t had the luxury of a waiting room, but had been Mary’s only companion (other than whatever other animals made their home in the barn) during her labor.
Tired, alone, afraid. The first guests to arrive as Jesus enters the world are a group of disreputable, untrustworthy shepherds with a story so strange it would have been unbelievable if Mary and Joseph hadn’t already had their own share of strange encounters with God’s messengers. As Mary listened to their story, committing their words to memory and treasuring them, pondering them, I wonder if she recalled her own reaction to the Lord’s angel, which had prompted her to sing, “God has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
No, we don’t generally sing Christmas carols like that on Christmas Eve do we? Ones that remind us how common and ordinary and poor Jesus and Mary and Joseph were. We sing songs that impose order on a messy story, that tidy up the image of those first heralds of the newborn king, turning them into kindly night watchmen instead of the unlikely, uninvited houseguests they really were.
And thank God for that, because as much as we may crave the familiar and the predictable especially during the holiday season when we gather together with friends and family, our world desperately needs something unlikely, uninvited, and unpredictable to happen. It needs to be saved.
And if the God whose praises the angels sang that first Christmas night in Bethlehem is only interested in saving the folks who manage to make it to church on Christmas Eve, then God is too small to deserve such praise.
But in Jesus “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11) which means even the people who weren’t looking for salvation, who weren’t welcome in church, who couldn’t make it in the front door of the hotel so had to squat in the garage. The grace of God has appeared to noisy babies and disappointed relatives and ungrateful children. The grace of God has appeared to tired parents, and third-shift workers, and messengers of every kind.
The grace of God isn’t predictable. It doesn’t impose order on our chaos or whip us into shape. It enters into lives like ours, and lives nothing at all like ours, and blesses them with the greatest gift we never imagined: new life, surprising love, and a lasting peace.
So I just don’t believe, not for a minute, that it was a silent night. I don’t think the infant Jesus was a quiet, well-behaved baby, because God knows he didn’t grow up to be a quiet, well-behaved man. I choose to believe he came into the world kicking and screaming and making some noise, just to put Bethlehem, and Israel and all of creation on notice that something totally uncomfortable and totally necessary was coming their way.
But eventually, once the shepherds had left and Joseph took his turn holding the baby, and Mary had a moment of quiet — in that moment of silence — she could look at the great treasure that had entered her life and ponder the gift of the unlikely community already coming into being around him. In that moment of silence I suspect she realized that the holiness of this baby’s birth had nothing to do with tradition, or order, or silence.
Maybe there will be a moment, if not tonight then some night soon, amidst all the noise and chaos of this season when you will find a moment of silence; and maybe you, like Mary, who are bearing God into the world, can ponder what it means for you that God comes to us just as we are, keeping watch over our respective and various flocks by night, and that each time that happens the world is saved and made new.
Merry Christmas and Amen.