Updated: Jan 17, 2021
This is certainly a Christmas none of us will ever forget. A year ago, who among us could have predicted that in 2020 we would be celebrating our Lord’s birth in such a peculiar way, behind masks, feeling all sort of limitations, our festivities and expressions of affection hemmed in? Tonight’s oddities are of a piece with all the confinements we’ve experienced since the “lockdown”—a rather apt choice of word, when you think about it—since this lockdown began last March. We have been “sheltering at home,” zipping in and out of stores as fast as we can, then sanitizing and washing, postponing anything that can be postponed, maintaining distance from friends and colleagues, all the while trying hard to keep our spirits up. Many are engaged in the impossible juggling act of working at home while educating and caring for young children. And we know that we’re the lucky ones, just because we’re here and still healthy. We are aware, however, of the waves of grief engulfing many, the vast numbers of the seriously ill and debilitated, the exhausted health care workers, and the other essential workers who are at risk every day. We know that for some, especially for some women and children, “sheltering at home” is no shelter at all but rather entrapment and exposure to battering and abuse. Others now have no home even to shelter in; no job to go back to; and they are gripped by anxiety and fear and sadness for themselves and their loved ones. A lockdown indeed. For many, a kind of prison.
Yet God is right in the middle of it, experiencing all these confinements from the inside. “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a”—a baby. But first, even to become a baby, the Word of God who is God, had to find shelter in the womb of the Virgin—a nine-month confinement if ever there was one. And, according to St. Luke, his mother didn’t get to enjoy the relative comfort of “sheltering at home” when “the time came for her to be delivered.” She was denied the security of a confinement with female relatives and midwives at hand to coach and assure and help in all sorts of practical ways. No: Mary and Joseph were caught up in a swirl of events larger than themselves—decisions made in far-off Rome pressed upon them. They had to travel at the most inconvenient of times, in late pregnancy, finally finding their shelter with animals rather than with humans. There “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The infinite God confined to a tiny child. The almighty God subject to the changes and chances of this life. The everlasting God vulnerable to suffering, sickness, and finally death. A baby—utterly dependent on others for survival. The eternal Word of God became small, entered into all our creaturely limitations, at great cost because of great love.
In recent years I have been struck with the theological depth of many of our traditional Christmas hymns. Perhaps because they are so familiar, and their melodies so memorable, we’re apt to hum them along without really noticing their electrifying announcement of the gospel. Consider, for instance, Charles Wesley’s “Hark! The herald angels sing.” The opening words, which identify the angels as a “herald,” immediately connects these messengers of the divine with the other “herald of good tidings” in Isaiah, who says to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (Is. 40:9). And indeed, that is the heart of the angelic message—their evangelium—to the shepherds and to us. Wesley’s hymn continues in a burst of adoration for the “incarnate Deity,” “veiled in flesh.” But it is with his third and final stanza that he brings his magnificent poem to its climax. The first words of this stanza rework the Philippians’ hymn (“He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”) into a Christmas trope, (“Mild he lays his glory by”), and then goes on to flip imagery of birth and death, of rebirth and resurrection, to distill the quintessence of the gospel proclamation. He would have us recognize the scope of salvation set in motion by this birth:
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.
Risen with healing in his wings,
light and life to all he brings,
hail! The Sun of Righteousness!
hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
And just as Wesley’s well-known hymn fast-forwards us from Jesus’ birth to his resurrection, carrying us with him to a second birth, so St. Luke, in his own artful crafting of his gospel, moves us forward. He begins with the miniature scene we heard last Sunday: the visit of Gabriel to Mary of Nazareth, and Mary’s quiet, momentous “yes.” The child is conceived, hidden from view, the most profound confinement of the Incarnate Word. But then, as the gospel proclaims tonight, he is born, and word begins to get out: Herald angels tell the shepherds; the shepherds tell the townsfolk. Luke gives us a quick glance at this child’s presentation in the Temple, his adolescent conversation among the learned doctors; and the next thing we know Jesus is baptized and begins his public ministry. He’s out. His teaching, and healings, his transfiguration, and predictions of his passion all move steadily towards Jerusalem to his betrayal and death—and then his resurrection explodes, shedding light on all that went before, even the birth we celebrate this evening: “born to raise us from the earth.” Luke continues his gospel in Acts, and once again we see the same pattern: the disciples sheltering in place, until the Pentecostal Spirit breaks down the walls of fear and propels them into the streets of Jerusalem. And so the Word of God, first confined in Mary, and then sheltered by Mary in a stable, presses out and out into the world to transform it. Born to give us second birth; created to recreate this world warped by sin and doomed to mortality: “Risen with healing in his wings.”
As we continue in our own confinement over the next months—for nobody knows how long—perhaps the question for us is: What is God doing in us during this time? What incarnation of the Word is being formed in us, as in Mary? How is God preparing us to be “heralds of good tidings” even now, especially among those with whom we are sheltering? And how is the outward dynamic of the gospel going to take shape for us? Perhaps we can let these questions find a home in us, bringing them into our prayer from time to time. But tonight and for these twelve days of Christmas grace, let us first hear the “herald angels” speak the gospel message to us, addressing our deep need: “for to [us] is born this day . . . a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”