God is in the manger

God is in the manger

This is the sermon Bishop Scott Mayer preached at the diocesan worship service on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2020.


Christmas Eve 2020

I remember a brief, but for me unforgettable, conversation several years ago on Christmas Eve at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene (where I served).  Right before the procession into the nave, the choir was lined up, the acolytes with crosses and torches and banners were taking their places in the procession, our organist was transitioning from the Prelude to the Processional Hymn, the music was beginning to fill the space,  as well as fill our bodies, hearts, and souls,  and the congregation was rising from the pews to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

And my good friend and trusted associate,  Roz Thomas, looks at me and says,  “This is my favorite service. None of it matters without Easter, of course, but this is my favorite. This is the best.” And all I can do – with a lump in my throat – is nod in agreement.

The vast majority of Christians around the world are not gathering in person to celebrate Christmas this year. Without discounting our disappointment, I would like to speak briefly to that, reminding us that the Christmas mystery transcends time and space.

We celebrate Christmas – not simply because it happened once upon a time in a particular place, however true – but, also because the Christmas mystery happens all the time, everywhere. Christ is born in hearts and souls everywhere in all ages.

When we claim, for example, that Christ is present in consecrated bread and wine,  we are not claiming the Christ is present ONLY in bread and wine. Christ is present, but not contained by bread and wine. Christ is present in our church buildings, not contained by them.

We may not be gathered in person in our familiar buildings,  singing the hymns together, but Christ is with us. Christ is born tonight in Bethlehem;  Christ is born among angels,  archangels,  and all the company of heaven at altars all over the world;  Christ is born tonight in our living rooms;  Christ is born tonight and every night  in homeless shelters. The Christmas mystery transcends time and space, and Christ is present with you now.

Like my friend, Roz, the Christmas Eve celebration is my favorite. To me, it is the best. Something about Christmas Eve speaks to me – speaks to most of us, I bet – at a level beyond the mind and beyond rational thought. I would suggest that this is something more than sentimentality, warm feelings, or good memories.

For me personally, it includes fortunate memories, childhood memories of the family gathered around the piano singing carols, the anticipation of Santa Claus,  the years of attending Midnight Mass, followed by the gaze up into the clear winter night with stars on top of us, remembering wise men followed a star.

Certainly, for many of us, this event is prone to the sentimental and includes the memories (and those are good things, by the way). Just as certainly, it is more than that: the power, the mystery, the wonder of the Incarnation expressed in the hymns and anthems of this night: “Angels we have heard on high, singing sweetly through the night,” “What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” “Silent Night, Holy Night, Son of God, Love’s pure light …”.

… the power,  the mystery, the wonder expressed in Luke’s story, the angel’s proclamation to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid;  or see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David  a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you:  you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth  and lying in a manger.” “And suddenly,” Luke says, “there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth … peace.’”

Far more than sentimentality, the story tells us this child is born into a world which needs saving: the cold, gloomy, hopeless world of the Emperor Augustus. And transcending time and space, he is born into any world which has lost hope, any world which is lost, any world which is suffering.

Perhaps you are familiar with the 20th century German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He lived and died during the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. He was actually teaching in an American seminary when he felt called to return to his native Germany to confront the Fuhrer where eventually he was silenced,  imprisoned, and executed.

In that apparently hopeless context, and while banned from public speaking, he wrote repeatedly about the mystery of God’s love, the power and glory of the manger, and the wonder of the Incarnation – not exactly a sentimental context. In his collection of Advent and Christmas reflections – entitled, “God is in the Manger” – he writes about the mystery of the Incarnation.  As I read from one of his reflections, I remind you  Bonhoeffer was a theologian who respected scholarship, and was far from anti-intellectual. He writes the following:

“No priest,  no theologian,  stood at the manger of Bethlehem. And yet all Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of all wonders: that God became human. Holy theology arises from knees bent before the mystery of the divine child in the stable.”

He continues: “How we fail to understand when we think the task of theology is to solve the mystery of God, to drag it down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of human experience and reason. It’s sole office is to preserve the miracle as miracle, to comprehend, defend, and glorify God’s mystery precisely as mystery.”

In the context of a world facing horrific evil – a world questioning the power and presence of God – Dietrich Bonhoeffer faces his own execution for challenging the principalities and powers. In that context he implores the Church to preserve the mystery of God  and proclaim the wonder of the Incarnation.

He writes: “we retain the child in us to the extent we honor the mystery. …. Children have wide-awake eyes, because they know they are surrounded by the mystery.”

As a grown man, Jesus himself will tell his followers:  “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them: for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Only those who have the wonder of a child will be open to and aware of God’s Kingdom, God’s Presence. A contemplative theologian named Ronald Rolheiser  writes about the wonder and awe of children. He says that familiarity (being overly familiar with something or someone) is the death of wonder and awe; that when we are no longer poised for surprise and astonishment in God’s creation, and open to wonder and awe in one another (even, and especially,  those closest to us), then we need to look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again – until we can become surprised again, awed again, alive again. That’s our spiritual task, he says – to receive the Kingdom of God as a child.

The adult, he says, wonders WHETHER something happened or not,  or wonders HOW something happened (and of course, that’s important). The child does not wonder whether or wonder how;  the child wonders AT. The child wonders AT,  for example, a baby in a manger in Bethlehem.

While the scholars and historians say (and I’m all for scholarship), “Well it probably didn’t actually happen in winter time; and it probably happened in a cave, and not a stable; and probably it was a different Bethlehem altogether,” tonight’s celebration invites us to say “bah humbug” to all that. And join the child who wonders at the star in the sky, and follows it to the Holy Family, and wonders at the baby – the Savior of the world, a miracle, divine presence, God.

That’s the world’s deep hunger.  Our deepest desire – likely the fundamental desire beneath all desires – is to know the power, and the mystery, and the wonder of God’s love. So, tonight we join the angels and shepherds,  and follow the star – for God is in the manger.