Once again we come to Bethlehem, that land which, in the Christmas story at least, seems to stand outside of time and place. As soon as we hear the beginning words from Luke's gospel - in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be registered, and Joseph went with Mary, who was great with child - we are transported into another almost magical world where there are sheep-dotted fields tended by simple shepherd boys, where it's not unusual for the dark night skies to open suddenly, allowing streams of angels to descend, their wings gracefully unfurling as they come down to surround placid sheep with glorious music. Where friendly beasts gather around their feeding trough in which a sweet baby has been laid by a lovely teenaged mother and more angels hover nearby, gazing upon the scene with serene satisfaction.
Hearing the Christmas story is almost like entering into Narnia through the wardrobe, like going out of time into another world. We've heard it enough times to burnish it, to smooth it, to gild the rough edges so that we forget that sheep are smelly, that shepherds were despised, that unwed teenage mothers do not find having babies out in the animal quarters to be romantic, that God Almighty coming to live among us as a helpless infant is preposterous.
And we forget that Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was known as a Prince of Peace because of his Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, which was kept by installing legions of troops in every province of the Empire. That Augustus was considered a god, the savior of the people, because of his accomplishments in political, economic and social reform and in bringing the known world together under one governor (himself).
It is against the backdrop of Empire, of the Pax Romana, of the great socio-political and economic system overseen by the mighty Caesar Augustus - formerly known as Octavian, the warrior who defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium to create for himself the most powerful throne on earth - it is against that backdrop that this Christmas story takes place. All the world was busily engaged in commerce and politics and cultural activities, while outside in a barn, the true prince of peace is born, the true savior comes, and no one takes any notice except for some rough shepherds who are the equivalent of migrant workers in the Empire. And they only know because of the mysterious appearance to them by this mob of bright, rejoicing angels.
So there is this tension within us. We want and love the beautiful story and its once-upon-a-time quality: the gentle animals, the serene angels, the still night sky suddenly full of heavenly music, the sheep-dotted countryside, the magical world outside of time and place. And yet the power of the story becomes intensified through understanding the contrast of this birth and this life and this peace and this savior and this salvation over against the life and rule of the warrior turned emperor Caesar Augustus, creator of the Pax Romana but not the creator of the stars of night. My ways are not your ways, says our God. "My kingdom is not of this world," says Jesus of Nazareth as he stands before Pilate, Caesar's servant. "Otherwise my troops would be battling yours for the victory."
And yet if we stay with the otherworldly aspect of the story, if we limit Christmas either to an event occurring in a corner of the real but now ancient historical Roman Empire or to once-upon-a-time-in-Bethlehem, the land of dreamy angels and fluffy sheep and friendly cows, as interesting and even meaningful as both of those are, we miss out on Incarnation. Which is what we say Christmas is in the Church - the feast of the Incarnation. The nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ is not just about his birth but about how and why God chose to come and live among us and what that means to us and for us.
Of course, we say every week that we know what this is about. We recite in the Creed: For us and for our salvation, Jesus came down from Heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.
But theology and doctrine and information about God is difficult stuff for us ordinary mortals. Mountains of words have been written to explore and explain the theology of the incarnation and to talk about salvation. And yet sometimes the way we best can understand something so awesome and complex as God and God's ways is to approach the subject by way of stories.
This is, in fact, the heart of our tradition. The Scriptures contain many parts - letters, poetry, laws - but the incarnation is at its heart a story. A story with skin on it, the story of a person sent from God who shows us what God is like, the story of the man from heaven who became human so that we humans, God's creation, might become divine, might become what we were created to be.
And through story, through this particular story, we come to understand with more than reason or logic or intellectual power. Through this story we understand that busy empires are not concerned with teenaged mothers who give birth in the equivalent of alleys or concerned with their babies and their care. We understand that busy empires do not have the time or inclination to receive the songs of angels, much less notice God's appearance. We understand that God chose to come among us as a helpless infant born in irregular circumstances and resting in a feeding trough instead of as a powerful emperor resting on a throne. We understand that the good news of this coming among us was announced to the poor, not to the powerful. We understand that the real prince of peace does not employ troops or issue decrees that demonize or marginalize the non-powerful. We understand that the story of God is not just something that happens in an alternate universe but in real people's lives every day. We understand that we may live under the rules of whatever Empire we are born into but that those rules are not the ones under which God prefers to operate.
Incarnation is God's story with skin on it, having to do with not only the life of Jesus of Nazareth, God made man, but also the lives of all humans. The incarnation means that we are offered salvation just by the fact of Jesus. The incarnation means that God cares for those whom the world despises or pushes aside. The incarnation means that somehow there is a connection between heaven and earth, between mystery and not just the ordinary but the grubby earthy realities of human existence. That connection is in the person of Jesus, the one who stands between heaven and earth, not as a barrier but as the one who lifts us from the mire and brings all of humanity into the realm of dancing stars and singing angels with peaceful wings unfurled, into the very heart of God our creator.
And so we find ourselves looking into the manger and finding not just a baby but a pathway into the mystery itself. No wonder the story seems otherworldly.
But let us not forget the grubby earthy part, for this is where our own skin comes into the story. We are not simply recipients of this bounteous grace but also charged to be God's hands and feet who lift others out of the mire. The story shows us a vulnerable baby born to a powerless mother on the edge of society and challenges us to see Christ in all vulnerable, powerless, marginalized people - people who are cast out or cast aside by the powers that be, by society, and, God help us, even by the church. And not only to make that connection in our imaginations but to put our hands and feet to work for their good, for their dignity, for their physical care, not simply as the recipients of our largesse but as our own brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom we seek not to exchange transactions but to be in relationship. The story of the incarnation is supposed to teach us to care, not only for Baby Jesus and his beautiful mother, but for all those for whom Jesus came.
Children have a great way of getting into the Christmas story through the venerable tradition of the Christmas pageant. They literally inhabit the story, they put on costumes and play out the parts and the story gets into their memories and even into their bones. From year to year they play the roles of the ones who say, No Room!, and the ones who seek shelter, and the ones to whom the angels speak; and they get to be the angels themselves. They learn the story from the inside out, with their own bodies, another way of thinking about incarnation.
Through the Christmas story they learn to care, too, not just by wrapping their heads in towels or tinsel but by knowing what it is like to say No Room! to their own friends. Knowing what it is like to hear No Room! said to them by their classmates. Knowing what it is like to tell good news and to have good news told to them. They learn by playing all the parts and imagining themselves to be their characters, by putting themselves in the shoes of others, not by trying to understand doctrine or grasp concepts. They just step into the mystery.
After every children's pageant I watch, I see a few young people come away from the manger with shining eyes and I know that they were living in the story and not simply playing at it. Their inching toward the baby on their knees in their animal suits, their standing in awe beside a tinsel-haired angel or donning a pillowcase shepherd's outfit took them into that other world and gave them their own stories to bring back and to tell, about the time they held their breath as a real baby was brought to the arms of a young girl waiting at the altar.
Luke's Christmas story is a beautiful story, and we can either leave it at that or we can find a way to put skin on it and live into it, to embrace both the unfurling angel wings and the earthy grubbiness. To know that not only did God come to us in the person of Jesus in first century Palestine, but that God comes to us again and again in this world and in this life, even at this very altar. And that it is our calling to put flesh on God's love for all humanity through our caring for God's people ourselves, not in the ways of Caesar and Empire, but in the ways of the God. To care for them as if they were that vulnerable and helpless infant lying in an animal's trough, surrounded by glorious angel song.