Sermon on Christmas Day: Slouching Toward Bethlehem (text)

baby[An approximate version of what was preached at All Saints Church, Pasadena, CA, on December 25, 2013.]

Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-14

Holy people, full of grace, the Lord is with you.

Some of you may recognize in my words an echo of the Angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Her pregnancy started with those words, and on the day of Christ’s birth, when her pregnancy has ended, the angels and heavenly hosts have a similar annunciation to us.

I invite you to revisit with me today’s Gospel story. Let’s start at the beginning: the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Biblical scholars will tell you that this event did not happen exactly as Luke described it because Augustus never decreed an empirewide census, and Quirinius was not the governor at the time of Jesus’s birth.

I also can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this event did not happen exactly as Luke described it. And I am no historian. Here’s my proof: what teenaged girl would walk approximately 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census when she was 9 and a half months pregnant? What young father, nervous about the birth of his first child, would undertake that journey with his young, teenaged wife?

Nevertheless, this Gospel account contains important spiritual truths, so let’s reexamine the scene a little more carefully.

I imagine that a very pregnant Mary must have been hunched over, clutching the bottom of her large belly. She must have been extremely uncomfortable and afraid and worried. Typically, women in these cultures are assisted by a circle of women who are experienced in childbirth. What teenage mother would feel comfortable going through labor the first time without the support of village women? And yet, Mary has only her young, inexperienced husband to be for companionship.

Imagine Joseph’s distress as well: he was solely responsible for the wellbeing of his young wife to be and their unborn child with no experience in parenting; and he wasn’t sure of the origin of the child, either.

They must have been terrified and lacking in confidence. They weren’t used to travel. They were probably hunched over with burdens of travel and fear.

In other words, they were slouching toward Bethlehem. The phrase “slouching toward Bethlehem” recalls a line from a poem titled “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. He wrote it at the end of World War I. In it, he writes that the world’s “center cannot hold,” that “things fall apart,” that the “ceremony of innocence is drowned.” And at the end of the poem, he asks, “What rough beast, its hour come at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” He had a peculiar vision of history and believed that the world went through upheavals every 2,000 years. The birth of Jesus had ushered in a particularly positive 2,000 years of history, but as we approached the year 2000, we were going to experience a turn in history. This would be a time full of bloody anarchy and war, and presided over by another force besides the Prince of Peace—some “rough beast.”

I think Yeats’ view of history fails to take into account the many wars and insurrections and natural disasters that occurred in the times immediately after the life of Jesus. What innocence and peace was visited upon the world simply because of the birth of Christ? Jesus himself predicted wars and insurrections and persecutions and poverty. The disillusionment that Yeats describes in his poem seems to me to be based on the false assumption that the world was somehow more innocent before World War I.

The writer Joan Didion used this same line of Yeats in a famous book of essays titled Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which she published in 1968. In it, she writes about her experiences as a journalist who went up to the Haight Ashbury district in San Francisco during the Summer of Love” to check out the countercultural revolution up there. The people of that movement proclaimed a new utopia based on love and peace, and war would be no more.

But Didion didn’t find the peace they were proclaiming. She found disorder and chaos and drug addiction. She wrote about people who came to California looking for that promised Golden Dream, as if California were some Bethlehem where they would find a savior or salvation. But they found disillusionment instead. They were slouching toward Bethlehem, drugged with dashed hopes.

This makes me wonder about the end of our Christmas story today. Where is that peace that the angels in our Gospel today speak of? Where is that peace and goodwill toward all? Where is that Mighty Counselor, that Prince of Peace whose birth we celebrate with such devotion? Are we looking for the wrong thing? Are we slouching toward Bethlehem like the people wandering around San Francisco in the 60s? Are we looking for peace in all the wrong places?

If we are, then how do we get some of that peace the angels promise? Has Jesus Christ left the gift of peace under the tree for us this year?

I have to tell you that I am not very good at waiting for presents to appear under the tree at Christmas.

In fact, as a child, I had a reputation for peeking at my presents. When my parents did Christmas shopping, they hid presents for their five children in their closets, in my dad’s office, under their bed—all over. And each year, my mother would say to me, “No snooping!” Because she knew that I peeked. Each year, I probably saw maybe one or two gifts before they were wrapped.

Christmas_Stress_ShoppingThis came to a head when I was twelve years old. For some reason, I was particularly anxious about what I was going to get. So whenever I thought I would not be discovered, I snuck into my parents’ room and quietly slid open closet doors and opened shopping bags. One day, my mother yelled down the hallway, “Janine, are you snooping?” And I yelled back, “What? No!”

On Christmas morning, I experienced a terrible disappointment. I knew every gift I was going to receive, so I had to pretend that I was surprised and delighted, when in fact I was neither. I also knew what all my siblings were getting, so there were no surprises. I tried not to look at my mother, because she was giving me a very pointed look. THE LOOK, if you know what I mean. Her look was saying, “I know that you know that I know.” She knew me too well. It was a horrible Christmas. Even though I had caused my own misery, I still felt disillusioned. Childhood felt like it was over.

And then suddenly, my father said in a very curious tone, “Oh, look, here’s another gift for Janine!” Since we had very little money, I was surprised, given the pile of gifts in front of me. I opened it, and it contained a gift I had not asked for: A lovely, long wool coat, suitable for a young woman, not a lying, disobedient 12-year-old kid. I hadn’t asked for the coat because I often received hand-me-down coats from sisters. But the fact was, I was growing up, and there was a deep yearning within me to be seen as a teenager, a young woman like my sisters. I had never put this deep desire into words. Somehow, my mother had read that deep yearning and met it in a way that touched and delighted me.

I was initially disllusioned that Christmas season because I had been slouching toward Bethlehem, looking for the wrong thing. I was looking for what I was going to GET. I was so anxious that I wouldn’t get what I wanted that I ruined Christmas with misplaced expectations. And yet, my parents looked through my foibles and plumbed the truth of my deepest self. The real gifts I received that day were my parents’ wisdom, grace, and patience. Their love and their mercy. Their generosity. They were Wonderful Counselors, Princes of Peace.

They gave me a sense of being known, and also a greater self-knowledge: who I was, and who I could be: a young woman, full of grace.

This is the gift that Jesus gives us on Christmas morning. When God breaks into creation to become human on our behalf, God not only makes something of God’s self known. God also gives us a sense of being known, and if we stay in relationship with Christ, we reach a greater self-knowledge.

And we receive another gift as well. Jesus was not born simply to Mary and Joseph. He was born to you and to me. Martin Luther points out in this passage that the angel says to the shepherds, “Unto YOU is born this day a Savior.”

I hope you’re ready to parent Jesus. It feels like a strange concept to me.

Some of the great mystics had moments of true communion with the infant or child Jesus.  In the sixteenth century, St. Theresa of Avila described a startling vision of the child Jesus. In her convent one day, she encountered a beautiful child who asked her, “Who are you?” She replied, “Theresa of Jesus,” and then she asked the boy who he was. He replied, “Jesus of Theresa.”

Jesus of Theresa. She was so profoundly affected by the answer that she is reputed to have carried a statue of the child Jesus with her after that.

Meister Eckhart, the Medieval monk, put it more bluntly: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself?”

We do not normally think of Jesus as an infant or child that belongs to us, but that is exactly what we celebrate in the Nativity of Jesus today: His infancy. He needs to be nurtured and cradled.

It might seem strange to think about cradling the infant Jesus as a way of relating to him. We usually speak of Jesus as Lord. Savior. Teacher. Friend. Counselor. Guide. Brother. Healer. All of these are adult things.  But not the Infant Jesus. How do we relate to Jesus as a baby?

I admit that I am somewhat mystified by this notion of relating to Christ as an infant. Then I remembered a teaching from the Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh in a book titled Anger. In this book, he talks about dealing with anger, and one of his suggestions is that we take our anger and hurt and nurture it like a baby. We imagine that our pain is a baby, and we cradle it and love it. We get to know it better and talk to it. And as we nurture whatever unmet needs led to the anger and hurt, we are healed.

Anyone who has cuddled a baby knows that it can be absolutely captivating to cradle a baby and to stare into its eyes. As we gaze at the baby’s eyes, and the baby gazes at us, we are asking each other, “Who are you? I want to know you.” We are becoming known to one another. We are falling in love with one another.

Now imagine that the baby is Jesus. And this baby wants to be your baby, the same way that Jesus wanted to be Jesus of Theresa. He wants to identify closely with you. I don’t think Jesus needs to get to know us better because he knows us through and through. I think he does desire a closer relationship with us.

When we gaze at the infant Jesus, what we really find is a deeper knowledge of ourselves. He looks at us, the way my mother looked at me on Christmas morning, to help us to see ourselves better, to see past our hurts and disillusionment and anger, our losses and unmet needs, our foolishness and selfishness. He gives us THE LOOK to help us see what we can become: the Christ we are called to be to one another.

Holy people, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Or more precisely, the Lord is WITHIN you. I say this especially to those of you who feel disillusioned this Christmas, who are slouching toward Bethlehem due to loss or grief or poverty or pain or depression. We know the holidays can be hard for some people. It may not feel like you are among the blessed this Christmas. The empire of our world has told us that we are supposed to be around a bountiful table today, in a home laden with gifts, surrounded by wonderfully loving families who are highly functional. We are supposed to feel peace, love, and joy today. That is the Hallmark tale of Christmas that leads to disillusionment for so many who do not feel joy at Christmas. Like Joan Didion in the 1960s, we are expecting some great countercultural revolution and peace, and we sometimes find disappointment and disillusionment instead. This Hallmark hype ignores the beginning of the Christmas story: two scared teenagers slouching toward Bethlehem, uncertain what the future holds for them.

At the same time, let’s not forget the end of the Christmas story. I do believe the peace and goodwill that the angel and the heavenly hosts proclaim is not merely possible. It is already here, as long as we look for a different kind of peace. It’s not a world completely free of wars or insurrections—at least not yet. It’s not lives completely free of pain and conflict—at least not yet.

I’m talking about the kind of peace we feel when we return the gaze of an infant. The kind of peace that is possible when we hold Jesus like a baby and give to him any pain that comes to some at Christmas. We allow him to transform it. We let him look into us so that we can know more about ourselves and see what we are capable of becoming.

To be known by God is a wonderful thing. To know that God is with us is an even better gift. To discover that God is within us and working upon us with wisdom and patience and grace is the best gift of all. It is the source of true peace. Jesus lives in us as much as he lived in his mother Mary.

Holy people, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you on this Christmas morning, for unto you a savior is born. Love him, gaze at him, and let him lead you to all that you can become.

2 Thoughts

  1. Yes, Jesus within us is truly the best gift of all. Thank you again for eloquently sharing from your heart. May God bless you, your daughter, and your church, throughout this Christmas season and all of 2014

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