Christmas Eve, 2014
I’ve been in churches my whole life, and I have only been cast in a Christmas pageant once. I was eight. It was an awkward period in my life. When I was one on one with someone, I couldn’t stop talking. I’m sure I was very witty and charming for an eight year old. But when I was at a piano recital or a school presentation or a swim meet, I became a different person. A shy, nervous, unfocused little girl. But my church had pity on me and cast me in the pageant anyway. As a junior shepherd.
You might not have heard of a junior shepherd before, and that’s okay. She’s a little obscure, and she doesn’t have any lines…Her main role is to follow the other shepherds around the sanctuary. But she’s actually an incredibly nuanced character that requires a lot of attention to detail. Body language is very important. Everything you do must say “shepherd” while also communicating a certain amount of inexperience and naiveté. Very complex.
In any case, I was assigned to a senior shepherd named Fred. Now, Fred was a church elder in his late sixties and had a lot of experience walking around the aisles and the chancel. He had a little swagger in his step, as befits a senior shepherd. And Fred was a very sociable guy. He’d tell me jokes and we’d talk about school. Pretty soon I’d forget that I was in a big church production and I’d become my normal giggly self, bouncing around the stage and getting in the other shepherds’ way.
We rehearsed for three weeks. After our big entrance at the back of the sanctuary, the shepherds’ most important part was the moment when we laid eyes on the baby Jesus. Every night, I practiced my reaction. Our baby Jesus was a plastic doll whose eyes opened when you picked him up and closed when you laid him down. Every night, I would look at that little doll and I would pretend to be amazed. Eyes wide, hands over my heart. Fred would lean on his staff and look very seriously down at baby Jesus…as befits a senior shepherd.
Soon, Christmas Eve rolled around. I donned my robes and my rope belt. I picked up my fuzzy toy sheep and stood with Fred at the back of the church. When he started walking down the aisle, my heart leaped into my throat. This was it! Was I going too slow? What was I supposed to do with my arms? And then we were there in the manger with Mary and Joseph, who were really parents from the congregation I didn’t know very well. And there was baby Jesus, only he wasn’t a doll anymore. The mom had brought her own newborn baby, and he was swaddled in her arms, making little baby noises and scrunching up his tiny little face.
I forgot what I was supposed to be looking adoringly at the little baby, hands clasped in admiration. Instead I stood transfixed, watching with eight-year-old fascination as this little person squirmed around. Fred stood at my side, his staff in hand, a smile dancing on his lips. “Well, would you look at that,” he whispered.
* * * *
Today we celebrate the birth of a real baby, with soft newborn skin and puffy newborn eyes; a baby who needs to nurse, and be bathed, and swaddled in blankets to ward off the chill of the night. A real baby who was born, as Luke reminds us, into our history. With two millennia between us, Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius might seem like fictional characters, figures in an ancient fairy tale. The manger in Bethlehem only as real to us as Rapunzel’s tower or the house of the seven dwarves. But for Luke, these details were his way of showing his readers that God had entered human history in a way that could be seen and touched and heard. Born, like all children, with parents, and a name, and a birthplace that can be found on a map. Born into a society with a long history and very real political and social problems, problems that persist even to this day. It is simply incredible that God, who is eternal, and who is in and under and above and around all things, should have chosen one moment in time to become one of us. Mortal, vulnerable, hungry, thirsty, moving through time like the rest of creation. How could God be so limited? How could God be so particular? How could God be so human? It has scandalized more than one thinker. To many, God can only be expressed in universal truths, in principles, in the infinite. Not in skin, not in spit, not in blood, not in laughter and singing and tears.
To them, this night, we might join Shakespeare in saying that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in that philosophy. And we must do some time travelling, to return to that moment when Mary, utterly exhausted and utterly in love, holds her new son and our new life in her weary arms. To hear her whisper his name: “Jesus”. To remember that this is no fairy tale, she is not an actor, and that is not a plastic doll in her arms.
It is our salvation. This Jesus is our teacher and our Lord and our redeemer, and he has come into our world, into our time, for you and for me. To bring us the gifts of hope and peace and joy and love, to restore our lives and our communities, to be the brilliant flame that will guide our steps and lead us home. A flame who, being a real, live person, also enjoys lullabies and cuddles.
I can understand why some people might shake their heads at this. Why a God with skin on might be unbelievable, even absurd, to so many. And it certainly is a mystery. Yet we have seen its effects, we have noticed that when we gather around this manger every Christmas Eve, our faces glow with divine light. Looking at this babe, we see our humanity, but it is our humanity perfected. We see the kind of people we could be. We see that we can be human and compassionate. Human and righteous. We don’t have to be strangers to God anymore — God is right here, in this little child, in our world, in our history, dwelling among us.
The angels summoned the shepherds to come gaze upon this miracle. We modern day shepherds, both junior and senior, are likewise invited to come to the manger and to bask in Jesus’ light. And, having accepted the invitation, we cannot look upon him with anything but wonder. All pretense, all irony, all conceit, all doubt falls away. Then it’s just you and me, gazing with fascination on the child who has saved us from ruin.
“Well”, we whisper to one another, “would you look at that.”
Rev. Liv Gibbons