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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Mystery and wonder have always been a part of our human story- especially at Christmas. We don’t often know the origin of these folk beliefs or from whence they came. There is one ancient response for the Midnight Mass of Christmas which declares that the cattle in their stalls face toward the East, and horses bow blowing as if to warm the manger. Yes, at the midnight hour animals begin to speak, and the bees hum the Doxology to the Hundredth Psalm. Granted, some of the mysteries do verge on superstition. It is reported that if you can find a kneeling donkey on Christmas Eve, and make the sign of the cross on its back, you will get your heart’s desire.
The mountain people of America’s Appalachians have some especially colorful Christmas superstitions. They say that if you sit under a pine tree on Christmas Day you can hear the angels sing. But, beware! If you hear them, you’ll be on your way to heaven before your next Christmas. In the Appalachians, they say that it is bad luck for a cat to meow on Christmas Day. If it does, evil spirits will visit every day during the coming year. And they say that eating an apple as the clock strikes midnight brings good health. Perhaps the most colorful of sayings, suggests that single girls who visit the hog pen at midnight on Christmas Eve can find out what kind of man they’ll marry. If an old hog grunts first, she will marry an old man. If a piglet grunts first, her husband will be young and handsome.
The haunting Appalachian folk tunes and Christmas carols offer a poignant, melancholic contrast to the familiar, romantic story of Mary and Joseph. I remember when I was young boy listening to a recording called Christmas Revels of a woman from Kentucky who read from her own Christmas memoirs. She told of a time, when Christmas was not about gifts and trees and carols broadcast through shopping malls in late October. Instead, she told of the first time her family thought to get a Christmas tree, a new idea in the hills where she lived. It was a memory she figured her Maw had gotten from magazines and “the outside world.” They went out in a snowstorm to get a Christmas tree, and had to settle for a sycamore sapling with almost bare branches. The first Charlie Brown Christmas tree- before it was fashionable. But, she said, when they’d strung popcorn and bits of colored paper torn from catalogs and decorated the tree, it was the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen. And on Christmas morning, they celebrated by going out at dawn, gathering outside her grandmother’s window, and singing. “What Wondrous Love is This.” That was Christmas for the old woman from the Appalachian hills of Kentucky.
Granted, it is hard to imagine such a sparse and bare Christmas celebration in our present day of abundance and plenty. And yet, the poor backwards hills and superstitions of Appalachia would not seem so strange to Mary and Joseph. After all, the hills surrounding Nazareth were a place for impoverished Jewish peasants of new beginnings and ended dreams. The town of Nazareth itself is never mentioned in the Old Testament. Even in the New Testament it is portrayed as a backwater of obsolete ideas and practices. “What good can come out of Nazareth?” the residents of the wealthier districts sighed. Mary and Joseph may have been of noble lineage, but their lives were anything but royal. Their days were as heavy and as unpredictable as those of their neighbors. As a carpenter, Joseph was dependent upon the repair needs of the fifty or so houses dotting the hillside around Nazareth. Mary and Joseph’s possessions were meager. They had no farmland to call their own, nor did they have any oxen or donkey to feed. But it was there in this humblest of settings that an angel of the Lord came to Mary to tell her that she would give birth to the anointed one of God, the Messiah. “Greetings, oh, favored one! The Lord is with you. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” It was no wonder that Mary went off to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the Judean hills. Who else in the closely knit village of Nazareth would believe her story?
All lives in distant Nazareth were disrupted by the decree of the emperor, Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be registered each to his own city. Joseph could provide all that was needed for Mary and their soon to be born child, if they stayed in the village, but travelling- even a short distance from home would demand all his earthly treasure. That, however, is what the decree required. There was to be a general census of the people, and Mary and Joseph were expected to register in the place of the forefathers, in the city of David called Bethlehem. Anyone in ancient Palestine with sufficient financial means would have been able to stay home, especially with a wife “heavy with child.” They would have arranged someone to represent them in Bethlehem, someone to pay the bribe, someone to attend to the expectant mother at home in Nazareth. But Mary and Joseph had no mean, so they set out on the eighty mile journey and almost immediately upon their arrival Jesus was born.
Of course, we always imagine Mary riding atop a donkey to Bethlehem or some beast of burden, and perhaps she did. A donkey would have been the least expensive option for poor peasants travelling from Nazareth, though as I am told, just as uncomfortable as an expectant mother walking the same distance. In scripture, St. Luke’s reminds of their poverty. On their return home to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph did not have the financial resources required to pay for the prescribing offering in the Temple in Jerusalem of a lamb for the birth of a son. They could afford nothing more than a two droves. Well, regardless of the means of travel, Mary and Joseph did what was required of the Roman law. They had no resources to spare them from the journey. Mary bore the physical pain, and Joseph carried the emotional burden and guilt f not being able to do enough. That is often the plight of the poorest of the poor struggling to ennoble and better the lives of the next generation.
The world is not fair- especially to the world’s meek and lowly. To add insult to injury, at the end of Mary and Joseph’s sojourn to Bethlehem, there was no room for them in their home country and city. No bed for them with their next of kin. There was only a place in the stable where they could rest their heads. We do not read that that there was a midwife or a maid present to attend to Mary in giving birth. There was no warm water nor cold. The manger itself was both a basin for bathing and bassinet. Nor do we read of an adoring grandmother or aunt assisting the anxious mother. In the darkness of the stable, Mary and Joseph, alone, after a long journey, gave birth to their firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. And yet in spite of all this, we read that Mary treasured all these memories in her heart, and pondered the meaning of the words of the misbegotten shepherds who would soon be the first visitors to see their infant Jesus.
That is the true mystery of Christmas- more compelling than animals speaking and bees humming the Closing Doxology. On that wondrous Christmas night, God came down to earth to two of the poorest of the poor, wrapped in swaddling clothes so that the world might be changed. Yes, he came to the world, that its way and its patterns might be turned upside down. And it is this story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and a Heavenly Father who cares so passionately about the poor, the meek and the lowly that he came to dwell among us and then invites us to care for them as our brothers and sisters.
But there is more to this story; there is good news for you as well; so good that the angel of the Lord was sent to proclaim it; so good that the whole heavenly host sang it. And so wondrous, that the shepherds abandoned their flocks on the hills of Bethlehem to see if it was true. “Behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you; You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger”
My friends, the infant Jesus has come again to the world this Christmas to enter your life and to capture your heart. Look this day to the babe, God made flesh. God’s majesty may terrify you. His power and might may overwhelm you. That is why Jesus came as a child. Not to terrify you, but rather he has come with abundant joy wrapped in a child’s delight, so that he may win your affection, your love and your heart. For in this way he has come to save you, and empower you, and ennoble you- with all his gifts. Trust this child who has humbled himself before you so weak and lowly. Trust him. For in him is your hope and salvation.
In a world filled with political turmoil and terror, where peace seems to be resting on shaky ground, when a marriage is tottering on the brink of divorce, a loved one suffers from a terminal disease, or you are greeted by an empty chair at the Christmas table, even in a world like this, God says to you, “Do not be afraid.” Yes, he who has laid aside his crown and has left the wonder of his heaven to walk and to be with you.
Mystery and wonder have always been a part of our human story- especially at Christmas. In Appalachia, it said that on Christmas Eve all water turns to wine, or perhaps more aptly moonshine. Even death has a place in Appalachian mountain mystery. It is said, that angels are so busy celebrating the birth of Christ that one hour before Christmas the gates of heaven are left unattended. And anyone passing over at this hour has a good chance of sneaking into heaven without having to give account of their deeds.
My friends, those who have seen the infant Jesus in Bethlehem need be afraid. A savior has come to overthrow the powers of sin and death, of conscience and guilt. Yes, Jesus has come as an innocent child, not to judge, but to save you- if you will simply believe and welcome him. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.