“The Risk of Birth”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 24, 2015 – Christmas Eve Meditation


The author and poet Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way:


This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war and hate

And a comet slashing the sky to warn

That time runs out and the sun burns late.


That was no time for a child to be born,

In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;

Honor and truth were trampled by scorn–

Yet here did the Savior make his home.


When is the time for love to be born?

The inn is full on the planet earth,

And by a comet the sky is torn–

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.[1]


This year, this Christmas, I am reminded of a part of the story we don’t usually tell on Christmas Eve. It is not a cheerful part of the story. There are angels, but they are angels of warning, not angels of Gloria in excelsis Deo. There is a nighttime journey, but it is a refugee’s flight from mortal danger, not an astrologer’s expedition toward a star of wonder. There are prophecies fulfilled, but they are prophecies of doom and destruction, not prophecies of justice and restoration.

This is the part of the story that is told in the gospel of Matthew just after the last reading we heard, the one in which wise men came from country far to seek the infant king whose birth the stars foretold. After paying homage to Jesus and offering their gifts, the wise men, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, left for their own country by another way.

And then, in the very next verse, there is another dream. This time the dreamer was Joseph, and in his dream, an angel appeared to him and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And Joseph, fearing for his life and the life of his family, did as he was instructed, and the Holy Family became refugees. True to his word, King Herod did search for the child, and when he could not find Jesus, he took out his wrath on all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. Jesus and his parents remained in Egypt until Joseph was informed by another angel in another dream that it was safe to return to their homeland.

We don’t have to listen very hard to hear resonances of this story in our world today. The flood of refugees fleeing the threat of violence in their Middle Eastern homelands, babies and young children in tow, are probably the closest glimpse we have of what the Christmas story looked like, the nearest we can come to seeing the face of Jesus in our time. And now as then, weary and desperate families are met with “No room at the inn.” Now as then, children find themselves particularly at risk. Now as then, we humans demonstrate a distinct lack of compassion for our sisters and brothers who speak differently, or pray differently, or dress differently than we do. Now as then, we give in to fear’s divisive push and resist compassion’s uniting pull.

And yet.

And yet.

And yet, in spite of everything, Love still takes the risk of birth. That was no time for a child to be born—and yet a child was born, the One whose story we tell again this night. A mother and father with no place to go brought their son into the world, surrounded by the earthy warmth of livestock and the cooing of doves. The Almighty slipped head-first into this world, naked and squalling, with tiny toes and perfect little ears and a pair of lungs that, I suspect, made it a not-so-silent night. The Immortal One became mortal, the Omnipotent One became vulnerable, the Lord of Heaven and Earth took flesh—not as a king or a general, but as a refugee child, a nobody in a nowhere town.

Yes, in spite of everything, Love still takes the risk of birth. This is no time for a child to be born—and yet a child is born. God still comes into our world. God still sends new babies to open our hearts, to show us God’s face, to teach us the depth of God’s love. God still hands God’s own heart over to us, wrapped in vulnerable flesh. God still gives the infant Jesus into our keeping. God still trusts us to nurture that child, to give him a home, to learn from him, to be transformed by him, to be formed and re-formed into his image and likeness.

This, I think, is the miracle of Christmas—that in spite of everything, Love still takes the risk of birth. Again and again, even this year, God chooses to come to us, tender and naked and utterly dependent on our care.

This kind of love is not without risk for God. This kind of love is not without risk for us. After all, we know how this story ends. But we are called to choose it anyway, and we will not be alone in the choosing, for we will be accompanied by others who gather to light candles against the darkness, to sing songs of hope against the world’s despair, to knit receiving blankets and crochet little pink and blue hats and deliver casseroles, to pray for peace and to work for justice and to build a world where all babies can thrive. We will not be alone in the choosing, for we will be accompanied by one another, and we will be accompanied by God, who chooses it anyway with us.

Because here’s what God knows, and here’s what, one day, with any luck, we too will learn: in spite of the risk, in spite of everything, this kind of love is the only thing that will save us.


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[1] From WinterSong: Christmas Readings, by Madeleine L’Engle and Luci Shaw (Regent College Publishing, 2004), pp. 96-97.


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