Upon your walls, O Jerusalem, I have posted sentinels;
all day and all night
they shall never be silent.
You who remind the LORD,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.
The LORD has sworn by his right hand
and by his mighty arm:
I will not again give your grain
to be food for your enemies,
and foreigners shall not drink the wine
for which you have labored;
but those who garner it shall eat it
and praise the LORD,
and those who gather it shall drink it
in my holy courts.
Go through, go through the gates,
prepare the way for the people;
build up, build up the highway,
clear it of stones,
lift up an ensign over the peoples.
The LORD has proclaimed
to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
“See, your salvation comes;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.”
They shall be called, “The Holy People,
The Redeemed of the LORD”;
and you shall be called, “Sought Out,
A City Not Forsaken.”
1 The LORD is King;
let the earth rejoice; *
let the multitude of the isles be glad.
2 Clouds and darkness are round about him, *
righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.
3 A fire goes before him *
and burns up his enemies on every side.
4 His lightnings light up the world; *
the earth sees it and is afraid.
5 The mountains melt like wax at the presence of the LORD, *
at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth.
6 The heavens declare his righteousness, *
and all the peoples see his glory.
7 Confounded be all who worship carved images
and delight in false gods! *
Bow down before him, all you gods.
8 Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, *
because of your judgments, O LORD.
9 For you are the LORD,
most high over all the earth; *
you are exalted far above all gods.
10 The LORD loves those who hate evil; *
he preserves the lives of his saints
and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.
11 Light has sprung up for the righteous, *
and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted.
12 Rejoice in the LORD, you righteous, *
and give thanks to his holy Name.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
It Wouldn’t Be Christmas Without
“It wouldn’t be Christmas without…” Magazines and newspapers run articles this time of year featuring responses ranging from the serious to the silly to the cynical, and we all could fill in the blank with our own ideas. It wouldn’t be Christmas without ugly sweaters, the famous and secret family mulled cider recipe, Great Uncle Ned’s crazy story about how he stole the neighbor’s inflatable reindeer as a rebellious teenager, the midnight candle-lit Christmas Eve service closing with the congregation singing the softest, most beautiful rendition of “Silent Night.” As our seasons of life change, traditions may evolve–your daughter makes the special cranberry relish for Christmas dinner at her house, and you slip into the role of excited grandparent instead of exhausted parent, or you move, and your church home changes, or you lose some special loved ones, and you can feel their presence now only through memories–but there are certain non-negotiables we all have this time of year, and the holidays would not feel like the holidays if they were missing.
The sameness, the familiarity provides comfort. There is something to be said about knowing the ending sometimes, knowing that all the men will retire to the sofa for naps following the holiday meal, that the dog will eat too many table scraps and get sick, that the trash company will leave behind a wrapping paper trail after its hurried, half-hearted post-holiday pick up.
As we leave behind our childhood years, we recognize that the rhythm and routine to it all blunts the excitement of the season, so that the extraordinary, the miraculous, seems manageable, digestible. It’s the recurrence of the bizarre customs like the plump man who breaks into everyone’s home through the chimney and a virgin becoming a mother to God that makes them endearing rather than frightening, understandable rather than unfathomable.
Yes, it’s the recurrence that makes the story about a baby being born to a seemingly unprepared, unfit girl–a baby lacking the basic necessities for his care, who in this day and age would be reported to Child Protective Services–sweet and benign. It wouldn’t be Christmas without remembering Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth, complete with the stable and shepherds and angels and bright lights. But if we place ourselves into the story itself, it is anything but tame and mundane. “Do not be afraid” are the angel’s words to the terrified shepherds–and those same words are uttered to a frightened Mary and Zechariah, a few chapters earlier.
“Do not be afraid.” It’s the most frequently repeated phrase in all the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments. It was precisely the unknown that so rattled Mary and Zechariah and the shepherds. The laws of the world they knew began crumbling before them: babies were being born to virgins and old ladies, the Almighty God was coming to earth in the form of a vulnerable infant, and lowly shepherds were beginning what would become a religious movement that would captivate and transform millions of followers spanning oceans and millennia. We think of Christmas as the expected; we know the story. The circumstances which so terrified Jesus’ first visitors comfort us, or amuse us, causing us to smile knowingly and suspend our belief about the actual facts and historical record of how everything went down. It is old news by now.
I am not sure that we can recapture that same sense of awe and astonishment to which Luke testifies, other than by trying to insert ourselves back into the narrative, or watching the church glow brighter with white altar dressings and candle light, or allowing ourselves to be swept up during our petition to God to keep acting in the eucharistic prayer (which is what the liturgy is always trying to do–take us to that thin place where we meet Jesus, shape us, change us into a holier, more faithful people). Our response and witness to Jesus may take a different form than the shepherds’, who incited amazement in the crowds, or Mary’s, who held close her intimate knowledge of God.
The people of Jerusalem, to whom Isaiah spoke thousands and thousands of years ago, may most resonate with us, in this case. Isaiah tells the Israelites to count on God, to hold God to God’s promises, but not to stop praying and working for justice and peace. They were to be expectant, not idle. And God would privilege them, their city, their people. Jesus shakes that message up a bit. Jesus emerged from Israel–the place, the heritage, the customs–but casts a wide net, enfolding anyone who wants to be caught up in his history. Maybe we are a bit too complacent with this idea of being partners in building the heavenly kingdom on earth, too confident about the inevitability of a Redeemer’s arrival that Jesus’ birth has lost its punch. Our culture has domesticated the Christmas story. It’s almost as though we are entitled to Jesus rather than humbled by him.
“Do not be afraid.” Do those words hold? Do we need them? Yes.
The frightening part of it all, which Luke attempted to point to by describing angels and bright light and signs and heavenly voices, is that God came to save us, not judge us. We believe that judgment will happen (and it needs to happen, so that violence and oppression and all of the evil in our world do not have the final word), and in fact, we voice that conviction every time we say the creed: “Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead.” But God first and foremost desires to be with us. Baby Jesus tells us that we are not alone, that God is mixed up in this crazy experience called life and wants to know us intimately. It’s grace. Before God judges us, God is with us.
That’s the scary part. It’s counterintuitive, antithetical to our ideas of judges and rulers needing to be detached and mighty, not involved and vulnerable. Are we prepared for this Jesus?
Madeleine L’Engle, the author behind the much beloved A Wrinkle in Time, writes of Jesus’ first coming. Her poem conveys that most importantly, Jesus anticipates our needs before we do; Jesus’ time is not our time but it is the right time:
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait
till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
It wouldn’t be Christmas without…Instead of completing that statement, let’s keep it open-ended, trusting that God has just the perfect answer to fill in the blank.