Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
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Christmas, December 24 and 25, 2012

Whenever I talk to someone who is about to travel, instead of or in addition to saying “Have a good trip,” I wish them “traveling mercies”, the title of a book by Annie Lamott. Traveling conditions are so uncertain these days that we need all the help we can get. If we are traveling by car, there are the possible traffic jams, the high price of gas, and the lack of rest areas when you need one, not to mention trouble with our car. If you are going somewhere by plane, there is the hassle of security to deal with. We all know it is for our own good, but having to take our shoes off and put coats, purses and laptops into bins for scanning is a major pain. I have an added issue. Because I have an artificial hip, I have to wait while the scanner calls for an examiner in a voice that sounds like I have drugs on my person to be patted down or wanded down, so they can hear the beep on my right side.

Mary and Joseph have not experienced many traveling mercies. She is nine months pregnant and riding on a donkey, which must have been very uncomfortable with all the bouncing up and down. Both are weary from the long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and then they cannot find a place to stay. It is not necessarily that they cannot afford one; there is just no place to be had and Mary is ready to deliver. Perhaps her labor has even begun. An innkeeper gives them room in a stable, for which they are grateful, but that is not a good place for a birth. The floor is hard, the cushioning of whatever straw they can find is insufficient. Color Mary and Joseph uncomfortable.

The other travelers to Bethlehem, the shepherds, are going about their everyday business – or their every night business. No doubt they are uncomfortable as well. Watching the sheep every minute was probably like baseball haters describe a baseball game – a few exciting moments when they have to chase off a predator, surrounded by hours of boredom.

In the midst of the discomfort, there is the interruption of God. After they finally settle in at the stable, Mary finishes her labor and Jesus is delivered. Labor is painful, and Mary is far from the comforts of home. Joseph does the best he can, but it is his first time to be a father and he doesn’t know much. Then there is nowhere to put the baby except in a hard feeding trough, which may not have made for a happy baby. Even though they are expecting the birth, their lives are forever changed by this promised interruption. Taking care of a baby is hard work and even in their joy, there is a sense of being different, of the twosome becoming a threesome and a big responsibility landing in their laps. God has slipped into the world in the form of a tiny vulnerable baby.

The shepherds are interrupted too in the middle of the night. All of a sudden the night sky is lit by the appearance of an angel and the glory of the Lord shines around them. They are terrified, as anyone would be. God has chosen the shepherds, one of the lowest classes in society, to reveal the message of God’s Son, the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord coming into the world. God’s message is one of hope for all people. The Savior will reconcile all people with God and there will be peace for everyone. The Messiah will liberate the world from the current oppressive power structures. The Lord will bring in a new kingdom that will be characterized by justice and mercy. The heavenly host comes to sing and then the angels return to heaven. God has not slipped into the world here; no, God has come crashing into the world.

The shepherds are amazed at this happening. It is then that they decide to become travelers too, to go to Bethlehem and see the sign the angel promised – a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Unlike Mary and Joseph, they travel without incident and arrive at the stable where they indeed find the sign the angel promised. They are awestruck, and begin to tell everyone what they had heard and seen. The people gathered are amazed. Mary and Joseph are amazed even though they have heard the prophecy before. The third quality that characterizes the journey to Bethlehem is amazement.

After amazement comes transformation. The birth of Jesus heralds a transformation in humanity’s relationship with God. Heaven has come to earth. The Word has become flesh and dwells among people. Since humans cannot get to God, God out of God’s love has come to humans. What a great blessing! And those that are there cannot help but be changed.

The shepherds go back to their work, praising and glorifying God for all they had heard and seen. They felt a new life for themselves as the angel had appeared to them, the marginalized and oppressed. New hope filled their hearts. They felt the liberation from the prescribed social order that Jesus would bring, even though it would take awhile before he became an adult and began his work.

Even though an angel had appeared to Mary before to announce that the birth would happen, here was confirmation of the wonderful things her son would do. She had already been transformed into a mother that night, but now she was transformed into the mother of God. She took from the shepherds all the angel had said and pondered the words in her heart. She turned them over and over, wondering what being Jesus’ mother would mean for her.

What about the others who heard the message of the shepherds? What did they do? They did not follow Jesus like he was a celebrity; there was no Jesus fan club formed. But nobody can hear the words of an angel without being changed. Their feelings must have been transformed from resignation to the oppression of Rome to hope for the future when Jesus would free them from tyranny.

On our journeys to Bethlehem, we too go through the four stages of discomfort, interruption, amazement and transformation. This world we live in shakes us up and can make life difficult. From the powers that be fighting over the fiscal cliff to the havoc wreaked by hurricane Sandy to the shootings in Newtown, we find that as much as we like to be in control of our lives we really aren’t. And that disconnect creates discomfort. But God wants us to rest in God, to depend on God for what we need, to trust God to help us through the difficult times in our lives. So God interrupts us. God sends a sign to us, either slipping into our consciousness or crashing into our usual worlds, that is designed to get our attention and turn our focus to our relationship with God in Christ. We are brought to an awareness from some quarter that God wants something from us. Then we are struck with amazement. We know that God loves humanity passionately, but we have a hard time believing that God loves us personally as well. We have a hard time believing that God wants shalom, wholeness, for us, a peace in our hearts and in our lives that is unaffected by the vagaries of world events – a promise that God is there for us no matter what. Whether we see an angel or just experience the flutter of a feeling in our hearts, we are amazed that God has come among us to save us.

Transformation is a hard one. It is something we have to let happen to us and that is a tall order for many of us who are comfortable with the God we have already, even if our lives have been very uncomfortable. We have to let God into the stable that is our life (Brian C. Taylor) and invite God to change us. We have to pray and worship and meditate so we can hear God. We have to quiet our insides and what is going on outside us so that we may hear that loving voice reveal to us what would be pleasing to God. In other words, transformation comes easier if we invite it, crave it, want it in our lives.

This night (day), Bethlehem is the center of our universe. God has done a new thing by sending us salvation in the form of a tiny, vulnerable baby. God has revealed God’s desire for reconciliation with the whole world and God’s ultimate will to upset the world order for a new kingdom order where all are free and equal in God’s sight. We are called to praise; we are called to ponder God’s words in our hearts, we are called to hope for Jesus’ coming again and we are called to work for justice, freedom and peace in accordance with God’s purposes. The miracle of Christmas is our call to new life in Christ. May we trust him enough to accept the transformation he offers us and show forth our praise on our lips and in our lives.


   - Rev. Ann Barker


Works Cited

Brian C. Taylor, in a series of Advent Meditations for CREDO, “God’s Victorious Light”, Day 7, “Repent for God’s Kingdom Is Near”.