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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve Meditation


As the parent of a toddler, the story of Christmas, the story of Jesus’ birth, has taken on new meaning for me.  It’s not that I didn’t appreciate it before, but there are parts that strike me in new ways, both for better and for worse.  For instance, all that stuff about “silent night, holy night,” and, “the little lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” just doesn’t have the same ring any more.

I think about our son, and the things we say to comfort him when crying he makes.  Recently, in a phase of separation anxiety, we’ve been reassuring him with, “Mama and Dada always come back,” repeated so often that it’s become a sort of mantra for him.  “Mama alway back.  Dada alway back too,” he says.  “Gamma, Papa, alway back.  Sammy alway back.”

It melts my heart every time, because it is the sweetest thing I have ever heard… and because it is a lie.

I am not eager for it, but I know that there will come a time, if our lives proceed according to the order of things, when Grandma and Papa will not come back.  There will come a time when Mama and Dada will not come back.  There will come a time, hopefully a very long time from now, when Sammy will not come back.

To be a parent is, I think, to make an impossible set of promises—not only to “always come back,” but to keep a child safe, to provide for their needs, to protect them, to guide them, to teach them, to help them grow into a whole, healthy, flourishing human being—when you know all too well how easily all those promises can be broken, both by your own (and my own) all-too-human fumbling and failing and by the chaos and hardship of the world.

Mary and Joseph must have felt that, too, far more than I can even imagine.  Alone in a stable without so much as a midwife or a birthing-stool as their firstborn child arrived.  Stuck in a barn because they were not wealthy enough or important enough to have access to adequate, safe housing.  Holding that tiny, vulnerable infant and knowing what an inhospitable place the world can be.  Promising to keep that baby safe in a world where those in power cared little for the welfare of the poor, the foreigner, the refugee… a world where the strong trampled the weak and violence was a tool of first resort in resolving disagreements… a world where health care was a commodity available only to those who could afford it… a world where if you had the wrong color skin, or spoke the wrong language, or followed the wrong religion, you were an enemy.  A world where I’d better get mine before you get yours, because there certainly isn’t enough for the both of us.  A world where life was cheap and people were expendable in the service of the preservation of power—a world where King Herod would soon issue a death warrant for all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem, so threatened was he by the idea that a baby had been born who would change everything.

Mary and Joseph must have felt the impossibility of it all as they snuggled their squalling infant into a makeshift manger bed.  And yet, I am sure that they whispered in Jesus’ tiny, perfect ear, “Shh, it’s okay, you’re okay, you’re safe here.  Mama and Dada will always come back.”

And it’s not just parenting, is it, that can feel downright impossible?  Living in this world, being human in these days, can be a soul-crushing thing.  Whether it is the loss of a job or the loss of a loved one, international affairs or extramarital affairs, climate change or regime change, oppression or recession or aggression or depression… there are moments—or lifetimes—when the promises we hear in the Christmas story feel distant and out of reach (and I don’t just mean the ones about silent nights with newborns).

But even in this story, even for this baby born in impossible circumstances, even for his struggling parents—there was help.  Even in a world where Herod held sway, even where there was no room at the inn—there was a village ready to rally around that family.  Shepherds came to celebrate, and I bet they mucked out the stable and rinsed out some swaddling clothes and cooked some hot porridge while they were there.  Wise men arrived bringing gifts, and even if gold and frankincense and myrrh are not exactly practical, I bet their entourage included someone who would hold Jesus while Mary washed her face, and someone who would show Joseph the best way to diaper him, and someone who would reassure them that the baby was eating enough and would be just fine.  And those same wise men had clarity enough to see through Herod’s bland words to his murderous intent, and courage enough to defy the king’s orders and help provide sanctuary to Jesus and his family.


What if we lived that way, too?

What if, wherever a person was vulnerable, we made it our mission to offer care and compassion?  What if, whenever a person was struggling, we made it our mission to provide the resources they need?  What if, whatever a person’s heritage might be, we remembered that we are all related in God’s family?  What if we looked at every one of our neighbors—near and far, known and unknown—as nothing less than Newborn God, as nothing less than Love Incarnate, as nothing less than a gift of grace that just might save the world?

And what if we treated the impossible promises that life calls each of us to make as belonging not only to the individuals who make them, but to all of us, together?  Then even though Mama and Dada will not actually always come back, even though parents cannot guarantee that the world will be safe for their babies through their own efforts alone, those impossible promises just might turn out to be possible after all.  Because God also makes promises, and God’s promises are trustworthy and true.  And God has promised not to leave us or forsake us, not to abandon us to misery and despair—not ever.

Even when it all seems impossible, there will always be someone to help.  There will always be reason to hope.  There will always be love, because the love of God will never cease to be born anew into this world until every promise is fulfilled, until we love one another as God first loved us, until joy truly comes to all the world and heaven and nature sing.


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