Looking at Christmas Backwards: How low will God go?
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 8, 2019
Reading: Luke 2:12-20
It was an annual tradition for me to visit the famous Filene’s Department Store in Boston. It was almost a religious pilgrimage; it was that important. I fell in love with Filene’s when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s only a couple of stops on the subway to Park Street and I would go into Filene’s and walk around as if I was a person with money who could buy things. Upstairs at Filene’s there was the most glorious department store – old style, beautiful wood panelling, magnificent presentations, beautiful men’s shirts, gowns, jewellery, handbags, great stuff – and every floor you went on, there was something outstanding.
In many ways it was like The Bay, but it was somehow different and special. It was Filene’s. I noticed a sign outside the main door, almost the rotunda as you went into Filene’s, and it simply said: “The good stuff is in the basement.” So, my annual pilgrimage took me to the basement, where it was the opposite to what was up above. Here there was chaos, racks and racks of clothes, mounds and mounds of luggage. There was an incredible sense of competition amongst people to buy things and to find their sizes. There were, however – and this is a wee bit distasteful – no changing rooms. So, people would just change right there in the aisles with no thought about anyone looking on, right down to their underwear. It was a remarkable place, Filene’s basement. It could only happen in Boston. Let me tell you. But I used to go, and I used to always buy something in the basement, for indeed, the good stuff was down there.
Actually, if you went down two or three more steps, there was a slightly lower level, and the jewellery section. You would think this would be the chintzy cheap stuff, wouldn’t you? But no, under the illuminated lights in the glass cases was some spectacular jewellery, heavily discounted, but still way beyond the means of most people. The good stuff is in the basement. They were right.
In many ways, metaphorically speaking, the story from us from the Gospel of Luke starts out with a similar sign. It’s as if the angels had said to the shepherds, “the good stuff is in the basement.” The good stuff is not where you’d think you’d find it, in the glorious higher echelons of power and majesty and might and monarchy, but the good stuff that God is doing is found in a manger, and this shall be the sign. You will find this babe, the promised babe who was the Messiah, in a manger.
Now you’re a shepherd, you’re out on the hills with the sheep, and you know that mangers might be in barns, or they might be on the side of a house, but there’s nothing particularly impressive about a manger, or a stable. They see these things every day in their ordinary lives. So, to hear a heavenly host declaring that they will find this babe, who evidently is supposed to change the world, in a manger must have seemed almost bizarrely common.
John Calvin, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke put it even more punchily. This is what said. “The angel met the prejudice which might naturally hinder the faith of the shepherds, for what a mockery it is that he whom God sent to be king and our only saviour is seen lying in a manger.” What a mockery. You would think that they would say, almost in revulsion, that this cannot be real, somehow the Lord of the Universe, the Messiah, the very presence of God himself would come in a manger? But that’s what they were told.
And we all know what followed. The angels came again and said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among those with whom he is well pleased.” The rest, as they say, is history. But we mustn’t forget that the very presence of Christ in a manger is not some accidental fact that was thrown in. It was not something that we should ignore, for I fear at times that we do that with Christmas, that people run to the joy, the glory, and the high moments. They sing the great carols. They hear the magnificent tympani, the organ playing loudly, and the choir singing boldly. For many people, Christmas is no more than glorious noise, frivolity, joy, and a party. But that’s not what the shepherds heard. The shepherds heard that the sign of God and God’s presence among us was in a manger – that the good stuff is in the basement. My friends, that is powerful because I don't think you can thoroughly enjoy the glory, the freedom, the praise, and the fun of Christmas until you have grasped that God, in God’s gracious mercy, vulnerably came and dwelled among us in a manger.
When you think about it, the sign that they received, the sacrament, almost, that they received is repeated in our own lives as those who are faithful. We see God, do we not, also in simple signs. Not in high and glorious places, but in the ordinary. Think of baptism, the one symbol that we belong to the church of Jesus Christ. It is a simple sign, is it not? For the Apostle Paul, it was the belief that baptism represents us going under the water, dying, coming out of the water, and rising again to the new life in Christ – a sign that a change has taken place. But before you can go high, you have to go low; before you rise with Jesus, you have to share in his death and in resurrection. This was a symbol for Paul.
While, in our tradition, we do not often – although we sometimes do – take an adult and place them under the water and bring them out again to symbolize this new life, we take a child in our arms and bless them. We pour water over the child’s head in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, but the symbolism is the same. It is believing in the death and the resurrection, the going under the water and coming out again. Baptism is a very simple sign.
We do the same with Communion, with the Eucharist, with the Mass. We take simple things like bread and wine, although here at Timothy Eaton and in the United Church it’s bread and grape juice, but anyway, same symbol. We take the bread and the wine and what do we say? “Take, eat, in remembrance of me,” and: “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.” What do we see here? We’re seeing the suffering Christ. We’re seeing the Christ who gave of himself for us, the Christ who laid down his life for us. You’ve got to go low before you go high. You’ve got to go to the basement of the crucifixion before you go to the glory of the resurrection. This is the symbol that we have of the Lord’s Supper. It’s straightforward. But it’s almost shocking how God reveals himself in baptism, and in the sacrament of Holy Communion. That’s the way God comes to us. He comes to us in ways that are not always the most majestic, and sometimes they are even the lowliest.
I’ve always been a big fan of the writer Frederick Buechner, who, by the way, lived a lot of his life in Boston and probably went to Filene’s. I digress, but in his wonderful piece, The Hungering Dark – a book you’ve got to read – Buechner said:
Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go, or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humanity. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly or earthbound, but that holiness can be present there too. This means that we are never safe, that there is no place that we can hide from God, no place we’re safe from his power to break us and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that God is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.
Buechner has it right. It is amazing how God can come to us, not always in the mighty and the spectacular, the glorious and the high, but in the most lowly of places. Having seen him in the manger, you can see how low God can go, but this has always been his way. The uniqueness of coming in the Messiah was foreshadowed, I believe, even back in the Book of Exodus.
When the Pharaoh wanted to destroy newborn baby Jews, there was a certain mother of a certain child called Moses, who decided to take him and place him in a basket and put him in the bulrushes that he wouldn’t be found by Pharaoh’s captors. There, by great mystery and intervention from God, someone from Pharaoh’s household saw this child, and Pharaoh’s daughter felt compelled to adopt him, not knowing its origins or that ultimately this child would become the one who would liberate Israel. This child would arise and cause Pharaoh to let God’s people go. From a basket – and vulnerability – God acted. You never know where God is going to act in our lives at any given time. God keeps us innocent, off our guessing game, because the good stuff comes from the basement when God is at God’s most vulnerable. It also means that we have a responsibility. If we’re going to receive a child, we, too, should receive that child in a responsible way. We should be like the shepherds, the bearers of the good news that this child who was born in a manger is the Lord of the world, that this is why God has come, that there were always those and always will be those, who find the presence of God in a manger an affront to everything that they hold dear and believe in.
Certainly, Pharaoh did not want a Jewish child to come into their midst. Herod did not want a child to threaten his monarchy. Throughout the ages, there have been those who have aspired to greatness, power, and majesty, who have found the presence of God in a manger to be an affront to them. Recently, I was reading about a work on tyranny that described how Adolph Hitler dealt with Christmas and how he found it an affront. Hitler, in fact, wanted to change the date of Christmas to December the 21st. He did so because he believed that in the new Reich he was creating, there needed to be a change, a symbolism, a new order. He didn’t want to change it while his troops were actually in battle because he felt that might confuse them, but once the Third Reich was victorious, he would change the date because, he argued, the date was never inscribed in history. The key was to eliminate the centrality of the Christ child from it. He wanted to remove the symbols of the centrality of Christ in Christmas and even emphasize that it is not Christmas. It is not Weihnachten. It is, in fact, Yuletide. He also wanted to ban the singing of carols that would lift up Christ. He could not stand the notion of people in the Third Reich glorifying a Jewish baby, and in his anti-Semitism, he saw Christ in the manger as an affront to what he held as powerful.
Simeon said that last week, did he not? It will cause the rising and the falling of many. Did not Mary in her Magnificat say exactly the same thing before Jesus was even born? The sign in a manger was an affront. I'm concerned that people don’t fully grasp the powerful nature of the God who comes in a manger. They want bells, they want joy, and they want singing, but do they really want God? I think sometimes people think that the church is a place of judgment and a place of somehow of some kind of dark or foreboding spiritual presence. A recent Angus Reid poll has suggested that more than 40 percent of people think that religion is irrelevant for doing good in society. That is there in their minds, that God’s not that important, that the church is not, and has done some terrible things.
I love something I read not long ago, in the Sunday Times, in England – and it’s probably a story that’s been told many times over – about two young boys from Lancashire. What can I say? They were naughty boys, eight and 10 years old. These two boys were a menace to their mother, they were a pain in the church, they were discarded by the school. Every time something went wrong, they blamed these two boys for the problem. So, the mother said, “It’s time to act. I'm going to call the priest and get them to go and see him. The priest will put them right.”
They decided the younger boy would go first. The eight-year-old goes into the priest’s office. The priest sits him down and says, “Now, where is God?”
The boy looked around and said, “I don't know. I don’t know.”
The priest said, “Tell me now, before anything good can happen, you’ve got to know where is God?”
And the boy said, “I'm sorry Father, I-I, um, I-I-I really don’t know. “
Father was furious. And the young boy ran out, ran back to his brother. He went into his brother’s bedroom, and he says, “Quick, quick, get into the closet. Get into the closet now. God is missing and they think that we have stolen him!”
That wraps up a whole lot of Christian history in one story, doesn’t it? A frightening priest, a terrified child, and God gone missing. Wow. That’s a 21st century story, if ever there was one. But I don’t understand why we cannot grasp the power and the majesty of Christ in a manger; Christ coming and being one of us; Christ taking on our humility; Christ taking on our weakness. I don’t understand why there isn’t a great sense of joy; why it does not get us to care for the world; why it does not drive us to be on the side of children who are in need; why it does not cause us to repent of our sins; why it does not bring us closer to God. For the shepherds, the sign that the child was in the manger was one that changed their lives.
I was thinking back to years ago, when I used to go and watch artists sculpt. These sculptures were often in shopping precincts or outside of them in Cape Town. Often people would come in from the country to sell their wares, especially around Christmastime. I remember one day in particular, looking at this art and there was a piece of wood that had been burnished, and then it was engraved and chiselled. There were the most beautiful images, many of them African art of beautiful African women, children, and men who were workers. They were beautiful. The one I was drawn to, and I’ve never forgotten, although I didn’t buy it. I bought another one that’s in my office, but this one bothered me ... yet it inspired me. It troubled me, but it was beautiful. It was horrid, but it was gorgeous.
It was the image of an African child’s face. The child had a big smile and had open eyes that were wide, that invited you in. But the child was on a body, and the body was in the form of a crucifix – a crucified child. I didn’t know what to do with it. Where would I put it – a beautiful child crucified? I realized afterwards it was too late for me to go back and get it, that he was capturing Christmas. He was capturing the one that was in the manger, the child, crucified, that the God who had come in the manger came low, but he was also beautiful because in the smile, in the eyes, there was love.
Is that not our God? For the good stuff ... The good stuff’s in the basement, and that’s where we find our God. All thanks be to Him for coming in such a way. Amen.