Merry Christmas! It fills my heart with joy to look at you from this pulpit and see your faces shining with the light of Christ. This is a happy night, and I thank for you choosing to worship here in this church.
At the core of our faith is a bold claim: if you and I want to stand on holy ground, if we want to go to a thin place where heaven meets earth, then we don’t have to travel anywhere.
In fact, all you need to do is take your hand and place it over your own beating heart. You are God’s holy temple. You are the place where heaven meets earth. You are the living nativity scene in which Jesus is born.
The Kingdom of God isn’t “out there.” It’s not located in some distant land. Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, tells us something new: the Kingdom is near to you, as near as your beating heart. God’s Kingdom is in your mind. Your hands. Your spirit. Your voice as you kneel and sing “Silent Night.”
Isn’t that amazing? It’s what Christmas is all about. The birth of Jesus means that you and I are houses of the holy, tabernacles of God’s presence, temples of the Spirit.
Imagine how our families would change, our city would be different, our country and world would be transformed if we lived as if every single person was God’s home.
I live in a home with five other houses of the holy. As my wife, Carol, and four sons would readily admit to you, I am far from a perfect husband and father.
But in my better moments, I’m able to stay alert and witness how Jesus has been born in each of my family members in unique ways, how the light of Christ shines through their words and deeds.
These little God-moments are gifts that help us to see that this life is just a warm-up for what it to come. That doesn’t minimize this life—in fact, it raises the stakes and makes our time on this earth even more precious.
This year, as we decorated our Christmas tree, I had one of those God-moments as I held each of our boys’ “First Christmas” ornaments, all of them given to us as gifts soon after the births of our sons.
Those ornaments were just like a song, scent or taste that take you back to another time in life. Instantly, I recalled those days when family and friends came to visit us after the births of our children.
As we witness in the Christmas story, one of the best parts of having a baby is that people come to visit you.
If your child is born in a hospital, your first visitors will be doctors and nurses. They will process the birth of your child very rationally. Your baby weighs this many pounds and ounces. There will be instructions on feeding, the monitoring of vital signs, explanations and various tests and observations.
I still thank God for the medical staff that took care of Carol and me and our children, especially Carol’s OBGYN, Dr. Anna Rhee, a diminutive, mild-mannered doctor who became a very different person in the Labor and Delivery room.
Let’s just say that she had what the military calls command presence. She issued orders to other doctors and nurses in staccato bursts. Everyone moved fast and did exactly what she said.
In time, Carol and I got to know Dr. Rhee personally. We learned over sushi with her one night that she was a devoted Christian and that her church was very important to her. But in the hospital, Dr. Rhee was all business. Along with the other medical folks, she looked at our children’s births through a mostly rational, scientific lens.
Friends and family were the next to visit, and we noticed that each person responds to babies differently.
Some folks just want to hold the baby. They would knock on the door in the hospital or at home, give you quick kiss, and then head right for the baby. They could have sat there the whole day with the baby in their arms, just adoring them and holding them close.
Others will hold the baby for a while, but then want to roll up their sleeves and get busy. They’re the ones who will look at you and ask: “What can I do? Can I go downstairs and get you some food from the cafeteria or some magazines from the giftshop?”
At home, these are the ones who will clean the house, cook enough meals for three weeks, run out for diapers or assemble a crib. Thank God for the worker bees—what would we do without them?
Lastly—and usually this group is made up of older siblings—are the ones who come to visit kicking and screaming. They want nothing to do with this little competitor who has invaded their turf.
And yes, there are some adults who will be honest and tell you that they are just not “baby people.” “I do much better,” they’ll tell you, when the child “can walk and talk.”
So many different responses to the same baby. We could say the same about Jesus’ nativity.
What I want you to remember on this Christmas Eve is that there are many paths to the Christ-child, whose birth means that we are all houses of the holy.
Let’s shift gears for a moment. I need for you to let your imagination be like a canvas on which God can paint.
The following is based on some of the most ancient depictions of the Nativity that exist in Christian art, and here I follow the interpretation of Carole Crumley, an Episcopal priest and wise soul whom I met last summer.
In your mind’s eye, see a rocky, craggy, mountainside. The mountain is bathed in a luminous, gold light. In the middle of the mountain, though, is a dark cave-like gap. It’s like there’s been an earthquake that’s ripped a seam open in the mountain, in the very fabric of God’s creation.
In that dark cave, Jesus lies in a manger. The artist is showing us that Jesus is born not in a sanitary hospital room, but amidst the world’s darkness and brokenness.
He’s wrapped tightly, like a little mummy, in swaddling bands of cloth. Very close to Jesus are two animals: an ox and a donkey. These creatures are mentioned in the first chapter of book of Isaiah.
The ox and the donkey are so close to the Christ-child that we can imagine that the warmth of their breath is the first-century version of an incubator. Their ministry is to help keep the baby Jesus warm in his makeshift crib.
Opposite the animals, on the other side of Jesus, is his mother, Mary. She reclines on the ground, clearly exhausted after giving birth. The surprising thing is that Mary looks away from the Christ-child.
We can wonder if it’s hard for her to look at Jesus in those swaddling bands of cloth. Does she somehow see the future: the cross, the tomb, Jesus wrapped in burial shrouds?
Jesus remains in the center of the picture like a Son around which all the other figures orbit. To his right, and on top of the canvas, are shepherds and angels.
A shepherd plays a joyful song on a pipe; the angels, those messengers of God, praise and adore him.
They all approach the manger by the path of beauty, which includes the senses, the creative arts, the appreciation of God’s creation, the qualities of astonishment and awe. These are the ones who visit and want to hold the baby all day long.
To the left are the magi who have followed the star to the manger. They follow the way of Truth with a capital T.
They exercise their intellect and draw on their rational abilities to chart a course and find their way to the manger. In them, we meet the precursors to the scientists and theologians who approach the Savior through the gifts of the mind and critical analysis.
On the bottom of the canvas, in the right corner, are two midwives. We don’t read about them in Luke’s Gospel, but in an ancient church tradition, Joseph hires midwives to assist with the birth. They are there to roll up their sleeves and help the Holy Family.
They find their way to the Christ-child through the path of the good: faith in action and works of mercy and justice. These are the ones who will do 20 loads of laundry, assemble a crib, change dirty diapers and fight for public policy that helps mothers and vulnerable children.
Don’t forget about Joseph. In this painting, he’s on the bottom left of the canvas. In early Christian art, Joseph is often presented as a rather sad figure.
He sits and mopes, looking at the ground and kicking the dust in frustration. Next to him is the figure of an old man, who represents the devil.
Satan is tempting Joseph to believe that he has wasted his life, that he has played the fool by sticking with Mary. The whole Nativity scene, in that moment of temptation, seems like a cleverly devised myth, a false projection that says more about human frailty than reality.
Joseph is the one who takes the path of kicking and screaming all the way to the manger. One day, he desires to have faith, to believe that God made a home in our flesh and blood, that God loved us enough to send his only Son to bring us back home to God.
But the next day, it all seems like an illusion, a story we tell ourselves to make it through this difficult life.
In this painting, Joseph stands for all those who come to Jesus kicking and screaming the whole way.
My hope tonight is that you can find yourself in this painting. There is space for us all within the frame, no matter which path we tend to favor. This is a generous canvas on which there is room for every single person.
There’s room because every person here tonight is a house of the holy. Whether you meet Jesus with your adoration and praise, your intellect, your faith in action, or you come to him kicking and screaming, you have a place in the manger scene.
So, come, let us adore him on the way of beauty as we stand in awe of God’s creation, let us know him on the way of truth through learning and study, let us roll up our sleeves on the way of the good and do justice and love mercy, and let us stay close to the manger even when we are plagued by temptation and doubt.
There’s room enough for us all to gather around the Christ-child, who fills us on this holy night with his light, love and joy.
A preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on Christmas Eve 2018.