As soon as we hear the words - 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 a land which seems to stand outside of time and place, where it's possible for the dark night skies to suddenly open, and for streams of angels to descend, their wings gracefully unfurling as they surround - with glorious music -placid sheep and wondering shepherds. Where friendly beasts gather around their feeding trough in which a sweet baby has been laid by a lovely 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. And we've heard it enough times to burnish 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.
We may forget that this Christmas story takes place against the backdrop of the mighty Roman Empire, overseen by Caesar Augustus who called himself a savior and enforced his peace, the Pax Romana, with legions of marching troops. And all the world was busily engaged in commerce and politics and cultural activities, while outside in a barn, the true prince of peace, the savior is born,
and no one of any importance takes any notice. Busy empires are not concerned with teenaged mothers who give birth outdoors nor with their babies and their care. Busy empires do not have the time or inclination to receive the songs of angels, much less notice God's appearance.
Still, if we stay only 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 Roman Empire or to once-upon-a-time-in-Bethlehem, the land of dreamy angels and fluffy sheep and friendly cows, 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 the story his earthly birth but about how and why God Almighty chose to come and live among us and what that means to us and for us.
The story of God is not just something that happened in an alternate universe but happens in real people's lives every day. We may live under the rules of whatever Empire we are born into but those rules are not the ones under which God prefers to operate.
The story of God coming to us in such irregular circumstances shows that God cares for those whom the world despises or pushes aside. The story shows that there is a connection between heaven and earth, between the grubby earthy realities of human existence and divine mystery.
Jesus is the connection, who stands between heaven and earth and lifts all of humanity, even the weary and broken parts, into the realm of dancing stars and singing angels, into the very heart of God our creator. That’s the incarnation - the connection of heaven and earth and of earth and heaven.
And so tonight we find ourselves looking into the manger and finding not just a baby but a pathway into holy mystery itself.
But meanwhile, back on earth, the story of a vulnerable baby born to a powerless mother on the edge of society also 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 us.
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. It challenges us not only to make that connection in our imaginations but to put our human hands and feet to work for their good, for their dignity, for their physical care.
The Christmas story is a beautiful story that we are invited to both gaze upon in wonder AND to live fully into, to embrace both the unfurling angel wings AND the earthy grubbiness. To know that God came to us in the person of Jesus in first century Palestine, AND that God comes to us again and again in this world and in this life.
And to know that it is our calling to put our plain old skin on God's breathtakingly beautiful love for all humanity through caring for God's people ourselves, not in the ways of Caesar and Empire, but in the ways of the God: Which is care for them as if they were that vulnerable and helpless infant lying in an animal's trough, surrounded by glorious angel song.